by Niv M. Sultan
Sitting down to begin writing this, having less than an hour ago watched the Parks and Recreation series finale—and thereby having completed my first viewing of the series in its entirety—I can already predict the criticisms that future me will have of the next few paragraphs. “It was supposed to be about Ayn Rand,” I’ll say; “about how Leslie is Bizarro-Dagny-Taggart, a gleaming blonde woman laborer who stops at nothing to succeed, and breaks through the walls that men build and maintain and protect from their seats atop them—but she does so in a distinctly public sphere, instead of the realm of private industry!”
Yes, I love that idea. I love Ron Swanson as the libertarian ideal, the apex of “social progressivism and fiscal conservatism” (whatever that actually means). When I scan a piece of pop culture, my mind has come to begin with a critique of the subject’s capitalist themes and implications, because I did it once and it stuck, and because I do capitalism every day. Parks and Rec is so wonderfully fitting for that kind of thing, too. It’s a show about work, the free market, and government. I could go in on Parks and Rec.
But not now.
That’s because for all of its compelling treatments of sociopolitical ideology, Parks and Rec left me feeling emotionally distraught. The season finale was a finger pressing on a new wound, digging at the emptiness that crystallizes when you watch seven seasons of a show in a very short timespan. I loved Leslie and Ron and Andy and Tom, and Jean-Ralphio and the pun-loving accountant. I can’t quite remember the last time that I got so sappy over a TV show, and I’m fairly certain that rather than making me feel more attached to its characters than any other show has (which it very well may have), Parks and Rec simply hit me at the right time.
When I was in college, the anti-capitalist shtick was simple because I didn’t have to compromise much in order to sustain myself. Flirting with socialism while typing away at a MacBook was easy because I didn’t have to pay for my meals. Nowadays, it’s harder for me to deny my hypocrisy; I have become the subject of one of my myriad college papers that I can sum up with: “This thing that I’m talking about is criticizing a thing while also being that thing!” I despise what capitalism does to so many people, but I do so from the safeguarded niche it built for me when people who looked enough like me made it.
In “One Last Ride,” the Parks and Rec season finale, Leslie Knope gives a commencement address in which she says that “We do it [public service] because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people who we love.” It made me think of the year I spent in public service, fresh out of college, working on a team whose transition from starry-eyed to hardened was swift and helpful. I adored—and continue to adore—the coworkers with whom I built something good on a foundation of very little common ground.
My year of borderline-quixotic labor is behind me, but I now find myself less willing to compromise on the idealistic than I would have expected. I have an office job, and I get paid a salary, but when I really think about what I’m doing, I wonder what it’s worth. (Millennial malaise 101, perhaps.) I consistently reflect on how lucky I am to be gainfully employed, but as per my mind’s most dire formulations, working a job that isn’t what I want to do in the long-term can be one of two things: a learning experience, or the front step of the abyss. So, from a place of confusion and anxiety, it was painful for me to recognize how much the characters of Parks and Rec love their work and each other.
The fact that Leslie and co. work under increasingly rare, almost mythical conditions didn’t help, either. 40-hour work weeks and the ideals of public service are vestiges of a time long-gone, intangibles that the invisible hand has largely cut down. Today’s workers, should they desire success as 21st-century upper-class whiteness defines it, need to be willing to work 130 hours a week. There are, to many, few values beyond money and renown.
Ron Swanson, then, isn’t the antithesis of government labor—he’s its paragon. He comes in at 9:00, and is out the door at 5:01. He values honesty, respect, and family. One of his catchphrases, “Please and thank you,” evokes the philosophical bedrock of government work. When Ron asks for something, he doesn’t wait for a response before giving thanks. Thank you, the signifier of an honest job well done, is a given. And because thank you is a given, the government, an operation with thankless work at its core, is the pillar around which Ron’s world swivels.
Yes, Ron finds satisfaction when he temporarily leaves public service and runs his own construction company. But it pales in comparison to his ultimate job of managing a national park, a haven declared invulnerable to the sands of time and the hazards of private ownership. It takes Ron a while, but he finds the place to which his life has been a path. And when we last see him at work, he is at peace: paddling not into the abyss, but into a body of water that belongs to everyone and no one at all.
Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared on First Person Scholar and The Ontological Geek. He is currently a political and nonprofit marketing consultant, and recognizes that he’s often part of the problem. Follow him on Twitter.