Whether it’s halftime, or a whole new ballgame, everyone’s playing for pride

February 12, 2012

Is it halftime in America? Or are we at a different game, on a different team, in a different league, playing a different sport, even?

The most talked about ad of this year’s Super Bowl says that if we brush the dirt off our jerseys and work together, we’ll march out of this economic rut, back onto the field and come from behind, like we have so many times before.

You could almost hear the sources from “Roots of Steel” cheering along. Like Rudacille so neatly summarized in the first chapter, they’ve been rooting for a comeback.

Though they don’t know for sure who is to blame, they do know what they want: a return to the old days, when the jobs that could support a family were plentiful, streets were safe, and workers could take pride in their contributions to the nation’s wealth and power.

Watch the game tape and not just the highlights, however, and it’ll show the good old days weren’t all that good.

Sparrows Point provided tens of thousands with honest pay for honest work and with a comfortable retirement. But it was hard, dirty, dangerous work whose hazards, for many, made retirement less than comfortable — or cut it short.

Sparrows Point provided a path to the middle class straight out of high school. But it also discouraged young people from pursuing higher education or other lines of work — or wasted the talents of those who did.

Sparrows Point supported several fold its payroll through the businesses that fed its supply chain and served its workers. But it also overexposed the area’s broader economic health to the risks of a single industry.

Sparrows Point fostered close-knit communities whose residents looked out for each other and helped their neighbors in times of need. But it also created insular neighborhoods wary of outsiders and helped teach generations the racism we’re still struggling to unlearn.

Sparrows Point enlisted workers in a greater cause: the American war machine. But it also artificially expanded the plant’s footprint based on, no matter how grand, temporary endeavors, rooted in, no matter how politically or morally necessary, death and destruction.

Our author alludes to this double-edged nature of the mill in the title of the book, as she told Urbanite shortly after its release.

The absence of that secure employment, as manufacturing cities such as Baltimore have discovered, has left a terrible void. The book’s title, Rudacille says, “is both literal and metaphorical. There’s this steely will and work ethic. On the other hand, roots of steel will bolt you in place.”

Watch the business report and not just the commercials, meanwhile, and it’ll show our current predicament isn’t all that familiar.

The Great Recession represents a transformative, rather than cyclical, shift. We have gone from a nation that makes things to a nation that buys things to, now that the debt party is over, a nation that will be buying fewer things.

That leaves us with, in essence, the stuff of Super Bowl ads: Ideas. From medicine to mobile apps to homeland security to alternative energy, we are, we need to be, a knowledge economy. We’re not so much trying to come back as we’re trying to build a lead.

There is one thing the Chrysler ad and the old steelworkers have right. It’s reflected by the father in the commercial when he drops his young son off at school. It’s reflected in the “red carpet treatment” everyone who “knew the mill,” even common laborers, received around town — and how that contrasts with the public reception their counterparts might receive today.

No matter what the scoreboard says, what our jerseys say, who our competition is, or what shape the ball is, we’re all playing for pride. It’s not necessarily our old jobs or the old way of doing things we want back. It’s our dignity.

This post was imported from the blog for the now-defunct Baltimore history book club, Read That City. 


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