One of the lessons of the 1960s was that certain kinds of cultural innovation were actually "matters indifferent." New and strange lifestyles could be allowed to flourish, sexual expression could grow more explicit, every kind of speech could become more free. Cultural tumult and experiment didn’t turn out to have structural consequences that would threaten the order or good government. The youth cultures of the post war period, the ones driven by Bill Haley, and Elvis, would actually not run riot. Only the Mayor of Chicago seemed not to grasp this new truth. The rest of the world shrugged and said, "well, as long as it doesn’t happen on my lawn, knock yourself out." In retrospect, we didn’t have to crucify Lenny Bruce after all.
[This turns out to be an amazing anthropological experiment. It was easy for liberal mavens to dismiss the anxieties and the hostilities of the mainstream, but in point of fact, I don’t think anyone knew for sure whether the cultural ferment of the post war period wouldn’t threaten order and good government. It was a remarkable finding. Now we know. Before we just didn’t.
And the experiment continues. What is the minimum order of agreement, or cultural consensus, that called for. Was it Vance Packard who called us a "society of strangers." The question is how strangers can the strangers get before really something necessary condition is violated and mutual estrangement takes us to the breaking point.]
But as the mainstream grew more tolerant, it was merely catching up to capitalism which had always ignored challenges from the margin. Riesman and others so lovingly documented by Carey brought every kind of charge against capitalism in general, and marketing in particular, and no one to my knowledge, bothered to reply. They arrested Lenny Bruce. They ignored David Riesman.
But now it looks like capitalism is fighting back. It’s a small example but it might be an indicator of a larger trend to come. According to today’s Financial Times,
The UK arm of [McDonald’s] is campaigning to get British dictionary publishers to revise their definitions of the word "McJob," a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector. McDonald’s says the term is "out of date, out of touch and … insulting."
The Financial Times says that the term was merely disseminated by Douglas Coupland in his era-shaping novel Generation X. I had thought (assumed, really) that Coupland had invented it. In his column, Stern suggests the McDonald’s protest is futile, a gesture worthy of King Cunute. But I am less sure.
There is a larger issue here. Specifically, who gets to say who and what we are. Still, more specifically, the question is who gets to say describe the job that millions of employees at McDonald’s perform each day. It may suit the novelist to dismiss this labor from on high. After all, he works a word processor, an instrument we regard as vastly more interesting than a fryer. And sometimes, we do suppose that writers should decide on matters of this kind. But if I was a fry cook at McDonald’s and someone called my labor a "McJob," I would have some questions.
Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers. The Amazon.com page here.
Newman, Jerry. 2007. My Secret Life on the McJob. publisher unknown.
Stern, Stefan and Jenny Wiggins. 2007. McDonald’s Unit Spreads the word to change dictionary definition of "McJob." Financial Times. March 20, 2007., frontpage, p. 2. [The quote above comes from the front page of the FT which excerpts the article cited here from p. 2. The quote within the quote comes from David Fairhurst, senior-vice president and chief people officer for McDonald’s.]
Stern, Stephan. 2007. McJob: n., slang, C20, a fulfilling role with great prospects. Financial Times. March 20, 2007. p. 7.