A retraction concerning the Mexican work ethic

Dear Hannah,

St. Augustine used to publish a series of yearly retractions, and I think it would be wise for me to do the same.  If anyone's going to be a man of learning, he must also be a man of unlearning.  Or to put it another way, if he's going to learn better ways to think of things, that means he has to get rid of the worse.  And if he's got any humility at all, he has to admit it when he was wrong.

I bring this up because nearly everything we think in youth is bogus -- excepting our instincts, which we can trust because we can only want what we want.  Because we have an airy idea of what we'd like and a concrete idea of what we don't, young people are more romantic -- alongside being more stupid.  They love to dream about how things can be better, but have no experience to tell them how to get it.  And to make matters worse, young people have no idea whether or not their ideals are possible, because they have no idea what they're up against or even that they're idealists -- they don't even know that they're young.  They don't even know what youth is, because they haven't experienced anything else.

They see they way things ought to be.  They have no idea why they aren't.  It gives them the impression that old people are lazy, selfish sellouts; that we haven't tried and we haven't got any ideals.  And it isn't that we haven't tried.  It's that we've been around long enough to see a lot of people fail.  Not that we've even accepted how things are.  We're just old enough to know both what "isn't possible" and the kind of people you can't trust.  So more of us know that socialism doesn't work and too much zeal is bad for your soul; just like we know what a whore looks like and why you can't make the world better by giving sandwiches to bums.  And young people think we're cold.  And we think young people are stupid.  And we're both right.  And we both need each other.  We need the old to tell us what we've already tried, and the young to force us to try something different.  When one is wrong, the other will save us.

The difficulty with youth is that every year you realize that the last year you were being youthful.  You're a snake shedding the last year's skin.  You're almost embarrassed of your former self -- you'd like to get rid of him, like the kid who hides his baby pictures because he wants to be taken seriously.  You fail to remember that the "you" you're so proud of today might be an embarrassment tomorrow.  You might be led to believe you were perpetually youthful, if only the people behind you weren't younger.

The relativity of age gives us the illusion that some of us are "fully grown," while the truth is that all of us, in some degree or another, are children.  We may learn how to manage our circumstances better, and we call the better management wisdom, and we call the age of wisdom adulthood.  But if we lose our idealism entirely, we might become something too wise for wisdom.  We might become crafty, like the "practical" politicians everybody hates yet everyone keeps electing.  We might become so convinced that nothing can be fixed that we forget all our greatest achievements were born of dreams -- and oftentimes dreams that spit in the face of what we used call impossibility. 

Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is because I was beautifully and idealistically and youthfully wrong about what I called the myth of the Mexican work ethic.  Now, I should preface this by saying that my personal experiences have led me to believe that there isn't any especially Mexican work ethic in the legal blue-collar work force.  They work just about as well as white people do, which means they do about average -- which means they work better than blacks, and worse than the Chinese (in general, of course).  What I was horribly wrong about were the men who did exceptionally well in the Mexican work force, and why they did it.

My argument was that, if we really looked closely at the matter, the men who did the best work were actually the most desperate, and that their work ethic wasn't actually an ethic because it came from somewhere other than a "moral nature."  But the truth is that suffering is a better teacher of morality than reading guys like Plato. You might even say that suffering is the origin of moral introspection.  We can learn lessons about good behavior by reading the Bible and listening to our parents.  Or we can learn it by playing with rotten women and growing up hungry.  So what if someone's work ethic was born out of hardship?  Is a man any less a man because he works hard for starving children -- or does that make him a better man?

Civilized men are oftentimes quick to discount the value of a difficult origin, when struggle and suffering are the seeds of human civilization.  If we're being really honest about it, struggle and suffering and direct contact with the brutality of nature are the foundation of the greater part of human greatness -- or as Will Durant put it, if we think of every great civilization as a tree, barbarism is always certainly the trunk, and our rotten fruits of effeminacy fall furthest from it.  And it may even be true that luxury proves the mettle of a man more than suffering; not because he has to overcome anything beyond himself, but because he has to overcome solely himself.  You never know what things a man does with women and time and coworkers because he can't do anything else.   You know exactly what he'll do when he can do everything else.  

And I suppose that is what I was thinking: that an ethic is something we do when we have options to do something else easily.  It's the thing that we choose because our spirit says yes, not because our wallet says yes.  And in an idealistic way, maybe I was right.  But to say that no such thing as a Mexican work ethic exists because Mexicans haven't had a way to prove themselves in luxury is getting the cart before the horse.   I was worried about whether Mexicans will make good citizens, when I'm not even so sure that white Americans are making good citizens.  I'm not so sure that most of us can be good citizens in luxurious times like these.  So of course desperate Mexicans want to be here: they want what we have.  The question is, will they be better than us when they get it?

Your father,


  1. I'm surprised there are not a thousand comments on here about your being a racist or some other nonsense. I have always found your point valid...why do families with money seem to always fail after 2 or 3 generations...or get more poisonous with time. They have lost their way.
    Their is something I think you may be missing in your post however, in the past, immigrants became Americans, this has not been encouraged. Some school systems have to accommodate over 100 languages...we are not becoming more unified, just more divided. It is not a question of better or worse citizens, it is a question of becoming a part owner of the American dream and not a parasite.

  2. I read an article recently about a successful local developer who had rough childhood and grew up hungry. The quote that stuck with me noted that despite his holdings he is still always poor so to speak, because it keeps him in that hungry mode. Word to the wise perhaps.


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