When Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous was released in 2008, the comedian made the argument there would be less war and suffering if only people would finally abandon religion and pursue rationalism. I agreed with Maher’s minor points in which he lampooned the silly behavior of some followers, but I disagreed with his overall one: that adhering to rationalism over religion would somehow yield better, less brutal results. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history and was largely defined by wars in the name of rationalist ideologies. National Socialism and the communist revolution were both every bit as antagonistic toward religion as Maher.
Ken Burger suffers from a similar blindness. The Post and Courier columnist recently described the food and beverage industry as a “trap” that “requires little training.” He also said a job in the industry is “demeaning” and little more than an excuse to be part of an “after-hours party scene … fueled by alcohol and drugs.” In short, Burger believes servers and chefs are drugged-out zombies who work dead-end jobs they hate to support lifestyles they can’t escape. Like Maher’s documentary, there are morsels of truth in Burger’s critique, but they are ultimately obfuscated by other points that contradict and undermine his overall argument.
Let us dissect the many ways in which Burger thinks F&B sucks, the first being that it is a trap in which people begin young only to become “lifers,” serving drinks or meals long past the age they originally intended. I don’t know what world Burger lives in, but 95 percent of the people I know do something for a living they don’t particularly like simply to pay the bills. Where I grew up in Hanahan, many of my neighbors worked at the naval shipyard for decades. Did these lifers dream of becoming pipefitters in their youth? Not likely, but just like everyone else, they had to get a job. Are there countless food and beverage workers desperate for a change? Without question. Just like so many longtime secretaries, retail workers, auto mechanics, and newspaper columnists.
Then there is the question of skilled versus unskilled labor, which can’t always be measured by a diploma or university degree. Before I ran my mouth for a living, I used to run electrical wire and spent about eight years crawling around dropped ceilings, digging ditches, hauling steel pipe, and doing other physically demanding things I would rather not revisit in this lifetime.
While the guys I used to work with could have knocked out the pyramids in a week, would they have been able to memorize each individual food order for a table of five — noting whether a customer wants a well-done or medium rare steak, sweet or unsweet tea, and a baked potato or fries or garlic mashed potatoes, all the while remembering that the customer has a gluten or shellfish allergy? Could Burger do this? Are the culinary school graduates who cook so many great meals in Charleston restaurants also part of Burger’s F&B trap?
It has been said that America has some of the best educated waiters and waitresses in the world, but we forget that so many of those with the best educations work jobs that have nothing to do with their fields of study, including those with law degrees, teaching certificates, real estate licenses, and the like. F&B is no different.
If Burger criticized black people by pointing out some of the negative aspects of that community in the same harsh terms he used to describe the F&B industry, he might be fired — and yet it is amazing the degree to which beating up on those whose jobs are to serve us with a smile is somehow considered fair game. Hell, you meet some real characters working in construction — alcoholics, deadbeat dads, ex-cons — but the overwhelming majority of my co-workers were decent and upstanding people.
Burger’s comments about the F&B industry do not hold up as a big-picture criticism once one realizes the extent to which this industry is like any other — with both benefits and baggage. His cartoonish portrayal of those who work in food and bev is not unlike Maher’s skewed portrayal of religious folks. Both men are not without warrant in their minor, individual criticisms, but collectively those criticisms reflect more of an overall prejudice against their subjects than any larger truth.
If Ken Burger’s intention was to hold a mirror up to the food and beverage industry, his column reflected little more than a personal bias. For if the truth is to hurt, first, it must be true.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.