What began as an expansive, mind-clearing argument begins to feel smaller, more pinched. Mr. Crawford fixates on “what is sometimes called ‘the 1968 generation.’ ” It isn’t exactly clear what an attack on the “easy moral prestige of multiculturalism” has to do with his argument, nor his soggy caricature of the “sushi-eating, Brazilian-girlfriend-having cosmopolitan.” One can’t eat raw fish or date South American women and still like to fix things?
He pleads for a matey kind of “yeoman aristocracy” in which men are free to tell dirty jokes because “the order of things isn’t quite so fragile.” Well, O.K.. I like dirty jokes too. But they are complicated things — less complicated if, as in Mr. Crawford’s book, there are virtually no women to be found.
“Shop Class as Soulcraft” begins to read like a long, self-satisfied defense of the life choices Mr. Crawford has made — quitting the dreary think tank where the girly men are, and working on bikes. The book suddenly has a small but detectable chip on its shoulder. “My point, finally,” he writes, “isn’t to recommend motorcycling in particular, nor to idealize the life of a mechanic.” But that’s what he’s done. The civics lesson about shop class and self-reliance fades as the motoring life revs up.
Sentences like this one begin to pop up like dorsal fins: “People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.”
About this passage I have (at least) three thoughts. One, “this thing that we do”? What is this, “Goodfellas”? Two, this type of gonzo romanticism does not fit the reality of the lives of most of the workers he purports to champion — dishwasher repairmen, plumbers, locksmiths. Three, hasn’t a vibrant and all-too-visible subset of the people who ride motorcycles — the noise freaks who omit their mufflers, the high-speed weavers through close traffic — definitely gotten something wrong?
The bulk of Mr. Crawford’s book is timely and provocative, even moving in its urging that we should “extend our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard” and recognize “the intellectual accomplishments of people who do work that is dirty.” But it’s also full of awkward, barely sublimated crosscurrents.
Most of the time I wish books were rowdier and weirder than they are. I wish “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was more at peace with itself. A more fitting title might have been: “Quien es Mas Macho?”
If there's a general complaint I have about conservatism, it's the tendency to bury its own premises as obvious. No word is more abused in conservative commentary, and to worse ends, than "rightly," which often is nothing more than a way to assert, rather than argue (or reason).
As it happens, I took shop one semester in junior high. The kids who did well at it (rightly) had a reputation as sadists. I think it's possible to appreciate the good things about craftsmanship without fetishizing or romanticizing it. Apparently it's more difficult to actually do that than it seems.