John Henry Died

Every culture has its myths and legends, especially surrounding those incredible individuals who stand out or tower over the rest of the society. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had their gods, demigods, heroes and, many times, cautionary tales of the mortals who got caught in the middle. Australia has the stories of pre- and post-federation mateship, often anti-authoritarian or highlighting the role of the larrikin. We have a lot of bushrangers (with suspiciously good hearts or reacting against terrible police oppression), Simpson and his donkey (a first world war hero who transported men to an aid station using his donkey, ultimately dying on the battlefield) and a Prime Minister who goes on YouTube to announce that she’s now convinced that the Mayans were right and we’re all doomed – tongue firmly in cheek. Is this the totality of the real Australia? No, but the stylised notion of ‘mateship’, the gentle knock and the “come off the grass, you officious … person” attitude are as much a part of how many Australians see themselves as shrimp on a barbie is to many US folk looking at us. In any Australian war story, you are probably more likely to hear about the terrible hangover the Gunner Suggs had and how he dragged his friend a kilometre over rough stones to keep him safe, than you are to hear about how many people he killed. (I note that this mateship is often strongly delineated over gender and racial lines, but it’s still a big part of the Australian story.)

The stores that we tell and those that we pass on as part of our culture strongly shape our culture. Look at Greek mythology and you see stern warnings against hubris – don’t rate yourself too highly or the gods will cut you down. Set yourself up too high in Australian culture and you’re going to get knocked down as well: a ‘tall poppies’ syndrome that is part cultural cringe, inherited from colonial attitudes to the Antipodes, part hubris and part cultural confusion as Anglo, Euro, Asian, African and… well, everyone, come to terms with a country that took the original inhabitants, the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, quite a while to adapt to. As someone who wasn’t born in Australia, like so many others who live here and now call themselves Australia, I’ve spent a long time looking at my adopted homeland’s stories to see how to fit. Along the way, because of travel, I’ve had the opportunity to look at other cultures as well: the UK, obviously as it’s drummed into you at school, and the US, because it interests me.

The stories of Horatio Alger, from the US, fascinate me, because of their repeated statement of the rags to riches story. While most of Alger’s protagonists never become amazingly wealthy, they rise, through their own merits, to take the opportunities presented to them and, because of this, a good man will always rise. This is, fundamentally, the American Dream – that any person can become President, effectively, through the skills that they have and through rolling up their sleeves. We see this Dream become ugly when any of the three principles no longer hold, in a framing I first read from Professor Harlon Dalton:

  1. The notion that we are judged solely on our merits:For this to be true, we must not have any bias, racist, gendered, religious, ageist or other. Given the recent ruling that an attractive person can be sacked, purely for being attractive and for providing an irresistible attraction for their boss, we have evidence that not only is this point not holding in many places, it’s not holding in ways that beggar belief.
  2. We will each have a fair opportunity to develop these merits:This assumes equal opportunity in terms of education, in terms of jobs, which promptly ignores things like school districts, differing property tax levels, teacher training approaches and (because of the way that teacher districts work) just living in a given state or country because your parents live there (and can’t move) can make the distance between a great education and a sub-standard child minding service. So this doesn’t hold either.
  3. Merit will out:Look around. Is the best, smartest, most talented person running your organisation or making up all of the key positions? Can you locate anyone in the “important people above me” who is holding that job for reasons other than true, relevant merit?

Australia’s myths are beneficial in some ways and destructive in others. For my students, the notion that we help each other, we question but we try to get things done is a positive interpretation of the mild anti-authoritarian mateship focus. The downside is drinking buddies going on a rampage and covering up for each other, fighting the police when the police are actually acting reasonably and public vandalism because of a desire to act up. The mateship myth hides a lot of racism, especially towards our indigenous community, and we can probably salvage a notion of community and collaboration from mateship, while losing some of the ugly and dumb things.

The tunnel went through.

The tunnel went through.

Horatio Alger myths would give hope, except for the bleak reality that many people face which is that it is three giant pieces of boloney that people get hit about the head with. If you’re not succeeding, then Horatio Alger reasoning lets us call you lazy or stupid or just not taking the opportunities. You’re not trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps hard enough. Worse still, trying to meet up to this, sometimes impossible, guideline leads us into John Henryism. John Henry was a steel driver, who hammered and chiseled the rock through the mountains to build tunnels for the railroad. One day the boss brought in a steam driven hammer and John Henry bet that he could beat it, to show that he and his crew should not be replaced. After a mammoth battle between man and machine, John Henry won, only to die with the hammer in his hand.

Let me recap: John Henry died – and the boss still got a full day’s work that was equal to two steam-hammers. (One of my objections to “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that the rich man gets away with stealing the money – that’s not a fairy tale, it’s a nightmare!) John Henryism occurs when people work so hard to lift themselves up by their bootstraps that they nearly (or do) kill themselves. Men in their 50s with incredibly high blood pressure, ulcers and arthritis know what I’m talking about here. The mantra of the John Henryist is:

“When things don’t go the way that I want them to, that just makes me work even harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this when your goal is actually achievable and you apply this maxim in moderation. At its extreme, and for those people who have people standing on their boot caps, this is a recipe to achieve a great deal for whoever is benefiting from your labour.

And then dying.

As John Henry observes in the ballad (Springsteen version), “I’ll hammer my fool self to death”, and the ballad of John Henry is actually a cautionary tale to set your pace carefully because if you’re going to swing a hammer all day, every day, then you have to do it at a pace that won’t kill you. This is the natural constraint on Horatio Alger and balances all of the issues with merit and access to opportunity: don’t kill your “fool self” striving for something that you can’t achieve. It’s a shame, however, that the stories line up like this because there’s a lot of hopelessness sitting in that junction.

Dealing with students always makes me think very carefully about the stories I tell and the stories I live. Over the next few days, I hope to put together some thoughts on a 21st century myth form that inspires without demanding this level of sacrifice, and that encourages without forcing people into despair if existing obstacles block them – and it’s beyond their current control to shift. However, on that last point, what I’d really like to come up with is a story that encourages people to talk about obstacles and then work together to lift them out of the way. I do like a challenge, after all. 🙂



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