Opinion: Luddites, Steinbeck and hope

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Commentary by Amy K. Sorrells

Some say Ned Ludd was feeble-minded. Some say he didn’t exist at all. Most historians agree he sealed his fate when he destroyed a knitting machine in a fit of rage around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Machines had begun threatening the livelihood of men and the quality of goods. Whole groups of similarly frustrated laborers acquired the label of “Luddites” when they began destroying machines en masse.

John Steinbeck made few friends when he wrote about the truth of the tumultuous era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Recently, I read “The Grapes of Wrath” and was struck by the parallels between the Joad family’s struggles and those of marginalized Americans today. As such, I was not surprised toward the end when one scene ended in violence.

The revolution we find ourselves in today looks different from the others, but as Webster’s defines it, we are definitely in the middle of “a sudden, extreme, or complete change (as in manner of living or working).” A few years ago, handheld computers and refrigerators that text you when your milk is about to expire, automatic checkout lines, and robots delivering packages to your door seemed like science fiction.

Folks who can afford to keep up with technology think it’s cool. Folks who can’t are faced with dwindling opportunities for education, work and the ability to provide for their families, not unlike the Joad family and perhaps even like Ned Ludd and his fellow Luddites. Anger is a natural and sometimes necessary response to despair and frustration. But I think it’s also a sign that what folks are ultimately searching for is hope.

If Ned was still alive and the Joad family were real, I might tell them that try as humanity might to eradicate itself in the name of efficiency, somehow we survive. I would tell them that eventually new and shiny things fade. And I would tell them to choose hope, because even when we can’t see what’s coming next, hope rekindles burned-out lives, and hope will see us through.

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