Earlier this month, television personality Mike Rowe stopped by Reddit to promote his new CNN program "Somebody’s Gotta Do It." The visit took place on the site's Ask Me Anything section, an increasingly frequent destination for celebrities looking to spread the word on upcoming projects. The majority of questions asked by Reddit users centered around the peculiarities of Rowe's time on Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," a show that has made him a blue-collar icon for millions of viewers. His answers happened to be quite charming and carried the matter-of-fact manner that one would expect from Mike Rowe after watching him humbly trudge through plenty of genuinely "dirty" jobs. The most revealing part of the session, however, was a question he did not answer, thereby shedding some light on Rowe's attitudes and his immediate impact on the mainstream perceptions of American workers.
Out of dozens of top-ranked questions, the query ignored by Rowe was one from an admitted Wal-Mart employee wondering whether Rowe would be open to spending a Black Friday at the nation's largest private employer. The user described the craze that is fostered on this day (it should be noted that these sales are increasingly creeping into Thanksgiving) and painted the experience as one deserving of the "dirty" label that Rowe likes to use to describe other professions.
Why would this question be ignored by a man who is known for constantly extolling the importance of respect for the working class and destigmatization of the jobs that they do? The answer is quite plain if attention is paid to Rowe's involvement with corporate power, specifically Wal-Mart.
Mike Rowe has been a Wal-Mart spokesman since earlier this year when he began narrating television advertisements for the global powerhouse attempting to showcase its efforts to expand its selection of domestically made goods. This "bluewashing" (spending company revenue for blue-collar-friendly P.R. while ignoring the harsh realities on the ground) has brought Rowe plenty of criticism, but apparently little in the way of concession and acknowledgment of the many negative factors at play for not only Wal-Mart workers but the retail sector as a whole (the fastest-growing sector since the recession hit -- a counterproductive measure to Rowe’s stated goal of helping out skilled workers).
Rowe's lack of answer regarding the possibility of working Wal-Mart on Black Friday is a clear aversion to the good that would come of devoting airtime to the immediate underbelly of American consumerism and the downright "dirty" plight faced by millions daily. If Nov. 13’s historic Wal-Mart sitdown strikes are any indication, it is that the employees of Wal-Mart need even more solidarity from the public at large, and not celebrities looking to latch their name to a kumbaya moment.
Rowe's Reddit dodge and his consequent contradictions are further illuminated when taking into account his recent back and forth with David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire," the critically lauded program about the war on drugs in the the city of Baltimore. Rowe's charges essentially amount to complaint regarding the characters depicted in the program -- essentially drug dealers and pimps, in his eyes -- and the related connotations that Baltimore, his hometown, now carry in popular culture. Rowe stresses that the show does not depict the Baltimore he knew growing up. Simon's response yields some insight into Rowe's missed, and thus tragic, connections:
Any insult from Mr. Rowe’s remarks may well have been unintended; however, the pimps and dealers and drug addicts that this gentleman so easily and hastily conjured to lament our narratives are, of course, a minority of the characters actually depicted in those stories. But in focusing on those few stereotypes, Mr. Rowe was clearly raising an argument that I find familiar and disturbing: That an undeserving portion of Baltimore has been chronicled at the expense of a Baltimore more deserving of attention, and that the America left behind by deindustrialization, poverty and the depredations of the drug war should just quiet the fuck down while we sell more of the America that has not been so marginalized.
Simon highlights the contradictions that led Rowe to the point of avoiding a question like the one posed to him on Reddit. His relationship with Wal-Mart has shut him off from millions of American workers -- those left behind in the face of global capitalism, deepening financial inequity, and a declining welfare state. It is within reason to believe that Rowe does hold sympathy to those who weather the calamity of a shift on Black Friday, but there is little doubt that his complicity with Wal-Mart bluewashing is doing anything but perpetuate the social forces that limit the ability of the working class to prosper. If there is anything to learn from his lack of an answer, it is that Rowe is the one with the dirty job and he didn’t even have to sweat for it. Today, it would be prudent to acknowledge that he is not an icon, but a true corporate shill masquerading as champion of the working class. Simply put, one cannot be pro-worker while standing alongside a corporate elite class and Sam Walton’s billionaire children.