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The New Dumb Debate: What Counts As 'Hard Work'?

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One of my favorite characters, drawn by one of my favorite writers, is Will Freeman, the bachelor protagonist in Nick Hornby's1998 novel "About a Boy."

Living off the royalties of his deceased father's one-hit-wonder, Will confronts the disappointment his many female conquests express when they learn he doesn't have to work for a living.


While this may sound at first like the stuff of science fiction -- in what alternate universe would anyone bemoan a life of leisure? -- the reality is that we respect hard work and are suspicious of its absence.

For evidence, see: real life. Yes, most of us have to work. But the very rich -- Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett -- still choose to. We've invented semi-retirement to get around not working. Heck, even the British royals work these days.

An almost religious esteem for hard work, described by Max Weber as "the Protestant work ethic," has been central to Western civilization's self-image -- so incontrovertibly that Americans have decided it's time we argue about it. Oh, us.

Meet MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, whose routine discovery of controversies that don't actually exist would make the Bigfoot hunters jealous. Last week, she stumbled upon the Patterson-Gimlin film of fake controversies, declaring the term "hard worker" offensive.

This was in response to a Republican guest calling Rep. Paul Ryan a hard worker who would make a good Speaker of the House.

"I want us to be super careful when we use the language 'hard worker,' " she warned out of nowhere, "because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it's a reminder about what hard work looks like."

While there's no danger of anyone taking her advice to "be super careful" when using the term "hard worker," many rightly pounced, including hard work aficionado and CNN personality Mike Rowe.


"This business of conflating hard work with forced labor," he wrote, "not only minimizes the importance of a decent work ethic; it diminishes the unspeakable horror of slavery."

Also, it's just boneheaded.

Less egregious but equally inane, the actress Rebel Wilson this week launched into a screed against the Kardashians. "Their careers aren't really based on talent," she told an Australian radio station where, I assume, this particularly ancient thought nugget hasn't been masticated into a soup yet. "I'm all about personality and working hard to get where I am," she boasted. "Kim Kardashian got famous from the sex tape, and I just went to acting school and worked really hard."

Now, we don't have to compare acting to slavery, but we can and should compare it to virtually any other job when evaluating how hard it is. But more importantly, who could say the Kardashians don't work hard? Plenty of D-list celebrities have made sex tapes, and yet none besides her seem to have managed to turn them into a $300 million empire.

Not surprisingly, the definition of hard work is also being parsed on the campaign trail. It should be uncontroversial to say thatCarly Fiorina had to work hard to go from a secretary to CEO of Hewlett Packard, and yet her detractors insist, not so fast.

Painting her as a privileged debutante, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum writes, "She did work as a receptionist for a few months, but it was just a short bit of downtime while she dithered about what to do with her life." Even if you ignore the rank sexism (I doubt he'd describe the five years President Obama spent community organizing before law school as "dithering"), is her rise to CEO any less impressive?


Donald Trump also faced some questions after telling a crowd, "My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars" when starting out. He paid the loan back and inarguably went on to become immensely successful. Nonetheless, for receiving a loan many of us will never get, Trump's hard work is dismissed as different from yours and mine. Which is true -- he's probably worked a lot harder.

In an age when everything from breastfeeding to gender pronouns have been turned into political landmines, it's no surprise that the concept of "hard work" has finally met the same lamentable fate, where even saying the words is obscene. Yet despite attempts to redefine hard work, Americans are too smart for this. Because, much like obscenity, we know it when we see it.

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