Tennessean Frank Cotham is one of my favorite cartoonists. In a 2013 interview with “Ink Spill,” Cotham responded to a question about his particular style: “I’ve noticed that two country people sitting on the front porch of a rundown house figure prominently in my cartoons in the last few years. I’m not sure why that is. It’s not really something that I see often around here, but my dog and I do mull things over on the back porch.” Cotham created a cartoon for The New Yorker last October. A scowling king in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage is riding through a field. In the background, a man with a rake has paused mid-task, his mouth open with mirth, the words “Har! Har!” above him. The text below the cartoon reads: “Go find out why a peasant is giggling at midday.”
The only other characters in the cartoon are the horses, who look disgusted, and the man driving the gilded carriage. Cotham has positioned the driver’s cartoon eyes perfectly to express incredulity. This “are you serious?” look is one I want more of, on the faces of people around me. Cotham subtly asks readers to consider where they are in this cartoon. Are they the peasant in the field, laughing in the middle of a workday? Are they the scowling king, determined to squeeze every last drop of work out of the peasants? Are they willing to risk a look of incredulity when someone above them demands they go into the fields and squish some peasants?
I have now rendered the cartoon much less funny by making it into an ethics lesson. This is one reason why I seek out people who do not turn everything into an ethics lesson. I am pedantic by temperament, and, if I am not careful, I find myself with nary a “Har!” – at dawn, midday, or dusk. What I come by temperamentally is a feature of American work culture. We are to make every moment “count,” and sometimes this is literally about counting. To name one example, a supposedly feminist person named Sheryl Sandberg has turned friendship among women as a way to “Lean In” (the title of her book) and succeed at work. Find some friends to laugh with, but put that time to good use to earn more money. Hardy har har.
Rev. Dr. Kara Slade, a colleague at Duke, has called this the “STEM-ification of everything” (STEM being the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Time, friendship, faith, food, steps around the track — all of these should be studied, assessed, maximized. Everything should count toward something else that can be counted. This shapes my own workplace, as I encourage students to read books that do not have immediate, obvious import for their future success in their own workplaces. When the peasants only read what the king expects them to read, in order to increase the output of potatoes, articles, advertisements, or widgets, we relinquish the God-given right to giggle at midday. To use Cotham’s words in his interview, people need time to “mull things over” with a dog on the porch.
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I teach for a program at Duke called Graduate Liberal Studies. Students in the program are under the same pressure to make every class count. This intensified after November. Many people around this country are working two jobs, or dealing with the misery of unemployment. Some of those people are being told by kith and kin that we are in the middle of an apocalypse, and that we must use every free moment and every ounce of brain-power to protest. I recently declared my class a “Trump-free zone,” so we could have a little time each week not trying to solve a cascade of problems. This is a class on apocalyptic literature, so the material may be “relevant.” But I am also clear that reading unnecessary things is good for the soul.
The director of the GLS program has asked me to speak to the graduating class and their proud families this May. The last time I gave a commencement address was in 1990, at Emory’s commencement. I was 20, and I declared “Learning for the sake of learning is a luxury we can no longer afford!” I opened by quoting Dante: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Twenty-seven years later, I realize there is another type of hell reserved for people trying to make every moment count, whether due to temperament, economic pressure, or both. Perhaps the hottest places of hell are reserved for those who, when commanded to squish a laughing peasant, don’t tell the scowling king in the gilded cart to get out and walk.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor at Duke Divinity School.