magazines for the coming apocalypse. Not
all survivors are survivalists. Survivors merit
admiration for their grace under pressure
and indomitable spirits. Survivalists invite a
wide berth and perhaps an ATF raid on their
compounds. Yet, for all their differences,
survivors and survivalists inhabit similar
imaginative environments. They both live in
postcataclysmic dreamscapes where people
under extreme duress unlock and contemplate the secrets of human existence. If the
plane crashed, if the government collapsed,
if the plague descended, who would survive?
Individuals with the skills of Grylls and the
guts of Glass.
But Hugh Glass had never heard of survivalism. He had never seen a Boy Scout or read
the Scout motto, and he could scarcely imagine the existence of a character like Grylls.
Glass and his colleagues didn’t assume they
could manage disasters or escape suffering.
They didn’t think they could overpower
nature. They lived in a world without action
heroes; instead of “survival techniques” and
“extreme preparedness,” they mouthed words
like “endurance.” They couldn’t teach people
how to avoid hazards because they were always walking smack into them.
With his high pain threshold and penchant
for safety violations, Glass resembled the
hands on the Deadliest Catch’s crab boats more
than the strapping survival guides. Watching
men battle storms, sleeplessness, falling ice
chunks, and 400-pound traps while keeping
their cigarettes lit on heaving, slime-covered
decks is the principal fun of Deadliest Catch.
We tune in to witness masculine agony. The
producers know their audience, so they focus
on greenhorns and strung-out vets. The
rookies bumble into trouble while the old-
timers explore the dead-end of careers meant
for younger bodies. The captains, cozy in
their wheelhouses, philosophize for the cam-
eras. They typically instruct their underlings
to meet pain with stoicism. “You ain’t a man,”
once spoke Captain Phil, “until you’ve pulled
out a tooth with a pair of pliers.”
Glass would have recognized, and no doubt
agreed with, that wisdom. He worked with
a guy who once asked to have his ear sewn
back on with needle and thread after a grizzly
bear jumped him. For the fur trappers, man-
hood and physical toughness were a package.
And others sold that package too. Soon after
his ordeal, Glass greeted readers in St. Louis
newspapers and a Philadelphia literary jour-
nal as a national representative. Through his
workplace accident, he modeled America.
It’s harder to see for whom or what the crab
;shermen on Deadliest Catch stand. The show
nods toward all sorts of higher motivations—
God, country, the eternal struggle against
nature—yet the narrative conceit that drives
the men hardest is the “crab count.” They
suffer to win a race, to ;ll their holds the
quickest with the most pounds of ocean ;esh.
The weight transfers directly to the heft of
their checks. Yet who pays for all that? In the
end, the crews withstand physical torment so
that you and I can stuff our holds at all-you-can-eat buffets. They bleed for seafood conglomerates and well-padded consumers.
Glass’s workplace mishap didn’t serve him
all that well either. The public learned his
name, but he died poor and alone. He never
pro;ted from his sojourn in the limelight.
His adventure fed an aggressive nation engorging on its manifest destiny.
Workers who suffer for our entertainment
deserve better compensation than D-list ce-
lebrity. Perhaps we can start by acknowledg-
ing the creepiness of our voyeurism. Risky
jobs hurt people all the time, and the tragic
consequences of industrial accidents usually
play out before a small circle of family and
friends instead of an international cable-
television audience. The mere act of seeing
a ;sherman pull out his own tooth with a
pair of pliers neither alleviates his misery nor
elevates his suffering. The guy needs a union
and a dental plan, not groupies.
the entertainment value
of human suffering
in the workplace.
Jon T. Coleman is an associate professor of history
at the University of Notre Dame. His book Here
Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear,
and the Rise of the American Nation was published recently by Hill & Wang.
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