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Jewish World Review July 6, 2000 / 3 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

If this is victory, what would defeat feel like? -- SAN DIEGO I think it may have been when I saw three men in a row in three different cars, each man with a worried, tense expression on his face, each man talking into those little wires that drop down in front of the user's mouth and are attached to cellular telephones....

Or maybe it was when I saw a father out with his family at a shopping mall, and suddenly his electronic pager went off, and he checked it and then excused himself to go call his office....

Or it may have been when, at the San Diego airport, I saw a woman cursing under her breath as she tried and failed to make her computer modem connect with a pay telephone so that she could retrieve her e-mail before she got onto her flight....

It was while making these observations that it occurred to me:

Isn't this what America was supposed to be like if the Russians had won?

That was the pervasive fear during the Cold War years: that the Russians (it was always the Russians; during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, the enemy that was waiting to destroy our way of life was invariably the Russians) would defeat us, and the first thing they would do would be to make us work all the time.

See, the Russians were assumed to be too diabolically clever to decimate our land and buildings. What good would that do them? We in the United States were so far ahead of the Russians in every way that mattered-- our cars, our offices, our stores, our kitchens-- that the Russians would have been crazy to simply blow us to smithereens.

No, what they would do, after their armies defeated us-- or so we were told by grim commentators-- would be to put us to work for them. Full-time, double-time, triple-time ... we'd be turned into working fools by our Russian masters. We would become one coast-to-coast slave camp.

That was the frightening thing, because the U.S., at that point in the nation's social history, valued nothing more than the newly discovered concept of "leisure time." In the years after World War II was won, "leisure time" seemed to be the most wonderful fruit of the victory. Barbecues, family trips, cocktail parties by the swimming pool-- leisure time was the new American ideal. We could spend our time doing ... nothing! That's how great this country was, that's how complete the victory over Germany and Japan was ... we had won the right to do nothing at all, whenever we chose to do nothing-- we had earned our leisure.

And that is why the Cold War threat of the Russians was so chilling. If they attacked us and won, our leisure would be taken away from us-- our just-found way of happy free times ("the Good Life," it was called in magazine stories) would be over. We'd be working in the morning, working in the afternoon, working at night, working when we should be sleeping ... that's all we would ever do. Work, work, work. Because the Russians would make us.

Jump forward now, to the summer of 2000.

The Russians didn't defeat us-- the Cold War never got warm.

We are-- at least as of this morning-- a nation at peace.

The economy is good; the weather is lovely.

And what are we doing?

Work, work, work.

We have come up with the technology to allow us to be connected to our jobs 24 hours a day-- and we have chosen to accept the unspoken commands of that technology. No conquering army has issued us the commands-- it has been entirely voluntary.

The concept of the eight-hour workday is ancient history. The idea of going home from the office, leaving the business world behind, and unwinding with the family as the sun goes down and the placid evening begins? Something out of a museum.

Now the workday is 24 hours long. Give out the cell phone number, check the voice mail, log on to the computer at home and hook up through telephone lines to the office e-mail system. On the airplane, use the in-flight telephone to pick up the messages that have been electronically stored on the phone system at work; on vacation, have the mail from the office overnighted to where you and your family are staying so you don't get behind. If you're out to dinner have the paperwork faxed to the restaurant so that you can go over it before bed; if you're driving home from work make those business calls while you're steering through traffic.

It's efficient; it's exhausting; it's constant.

The Russians didn't do it to us-- no enemy did this.

We did.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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