The house is barely six months old, but it has already begun to settle. Loose steps creak, doors hang, and cracks appear along the baseboards. If I were a carpenter, as my father was for 40 years, or knew enough of such things, I would have built my own house, as he did. But I am “educated” and therefore helpless by comparison. Though I can barely drive a nail, I am my father’s son and through him have absorbed enough of practical things to know that though the steps creak and the doors hang on the doorjambs and the baseboards are cracked, it is not a bad house by today’s standards. Plywood, not particle board—which is really not “board” at all, but sawdust and woodchips bonded by glue and pressed into a wafer—make up the floors and roof. Porcelain sinks and bathtubs and a certain vault-like firmness attest to the basic integrity of the house.

Still, as Daddy points out on a visit, corners have been cut. The basement’s copper water lines are merely stapled to the two-by-fours bracing the ceiling; the cracking paint on the porch and the loose stair rail tell the talc: shoddy work, a half-assed job is what he sees, and what seems all too obvious to me now. He is a little disgusted—this is an erector-set house, prefabricated, and even though it is not too bad as they go nowadays, a blind man could see in a minute that, to the men who built it, it was just a job, like digging a ditch or filling one, to be finished in a hurry. There is not a scintilla of the craftsmanship, the care, and the rich solidness of Daddy’s work. This house has the ephemeral quality of a paint-by-numbers reproduction next to the master’s original. It is a cheap, shiny Earl Scheib paint-job next to a mint-condition restoration. Daddy’s houses, and his winding stair rails and cabinets, were built to last, to leave a man’s mark. The men who built this house left no part of themselves in it.

If, as standard history textbooks have so often told us, the decline of a civilization is traceable through the marked decline in skills and knowledge we associate with master craftsmen (as well as through political demagoguery, social decadence, and educational deterioration) and manifests itself in the production of less workmanlike products in the arts and trades, then the shoddy “housing units” being thrown up nowadays are but a piece of a larger picture. The carelessness, the loss of a sense of accomplishment and permanence, and the generally shoddy work being done on the nation’s building sites are symptomatic of a society dominated by a short-sighted, throwaway ethic that seems incapable of seeing anything lasting or worth preserving in the traditional American cultural milieu. Flimsy houses, strip malls that are filled today and emptied tomorrow, “performance art,” and “educated” people who are either unable or unwilling to think for themselves (perhaps because they lack training in what was once thought of as fundamental knowledge), or even take care of themselves, are part and parcel of a larger cultural degradation.

My father, like all the skilled workingmen of his and earlier generations, learned his trade through a sort of apprenticeship, a slow accumulation of experience built on the knowledge of the craftsmen who came before him. Daddy, and men like him, are products of an accretionary process, a slow building of skills and habits. They are skeptical of slap-dash innovation, and they detest sloppiness and shortcuts. They are confident of their skills, but know their own (and have a sense of others’) limitations. They respect competence and appreciate blunt honesty. They have a certain quality about them that is resistant to huckstcrism, a quality that Hemingway called a “B.S. detector,” and they thus despise lawyers and politicians and anybody else who makes a living through manipulation. They are an independent lot, these men: Daddy worked for himself and is not a man to take orders. He, like his father before him, would rather die than take charity. Though generous to a fault, he reserves pity for the contemptible. He is the descendant of yeoman farmers. Civil War veterans, and frontier lawmen, and his may have been the last generation of American men who could truly take care of themselves.

They have a certain look about them, these men, with their sinewy arms and thick, strong hands and sunburnt necks, their khaki work clothes, white T-shirts, and sweat socks. They walk a certain way and have a hard stoicism about them. All of them I knew, and know, as a Texan, had a certain way of talking, but not too much. There is an air of certainty about them as solid and lasting as the things they make with their own hands. They are strong and enduring, clannish and loyal, and they have a self-assured masculinity about them that underscores the phoniness of the pumped-up, aerobicized, self-conscious Iron John ideal of the 90’s. These 90’s fellows are beefy enough, but like a freezer-burnt steak, they lack character and texture. By worshipping at the right p.e. alters and dancing to the right corporate tunes, they degrade themselves and pawn off part of their manhood for a faceless society.

It is the rough individualism of men like my father, tempered by old-time religion, that built this country, that cleared the trails, fought the Indians, and endured drought and pestilence. They built their own houses, farmed their own fields, cared for their own families, and fought their own fights. They are the America not so much of Washington or Jefferson, but of Boone, Crockett, and Houston. Frontier man was the builder of the America I love, but corporate man seems incapable of building anything except his own prison, or even of sustaining what has been built.

The men who built this house do not look like my father, nor do they, I dare say, think like him. Many of them, and on some days most of them, don’t even speak English, not even the Appalachia cum Chisholm Trail Texan I grew up with, nor do they want to. Some muck about in cut-offs, their ponytails flapping around behind them, their jam-boxes blaring eardrum-numbing rock “music” or babbling in foreign tongues, as they wield their air guns and staplers, the spit and ceiling wax of modern construction work. They are busy building the homogenized, steam-rollered land of America after the Americans, the throwaway, disposable, fast-food “nation” of strip malls and houses that crumble within a decade.

Both liberals—who dream of the “universal nation,” that tower of Babel united only through a common hatred of the West and disdain for standards—and “conservatives”—who idealize the politics of “development” and “growth” and see Americans as united only by a love of material gratification—are these usurpers’ champions. Both are helping to hasten the extinction of men like my father, and with them, the America both of Washington and Jefferson and of Boone, Crockett, and Houston. They swear that the wet-backed invaders share our “American values” and that the ponytailed trash, men who have not taken the time to master their trade, are doing all of us a service. That is the way these folks, the liberals and conservatives who grow increasingly indistinguishable from one another, think: they think that foreigners who tell polltakers that they “believe in” abstractions like “democracy” or “capitalism” have as much claim on this country as American citizens, that building “housing units” is the same as building a home, and that being an American is like being a member of a club that anybody can join. To these “mainstream” liberals and conservatives, “culture” means ideological adherence to abstractions; national character is defined by shopping habits and not by all the things that are lost when men like my father are run out of business and become extinct, when a way of life that includes the look of a people, the way they carry themselves, the clothes they wear, the foods they cat, and the way they speak is forgotten.

When all these things arc displaced by artificial fashions and fads, when craftsmen are replaced by fly-by-nights and foreigners with no sense of permanency or belonging, then America will become a purely geographic entity, a country but not a nation, whose disposable culture and deracinated people will bear as much resemblance to the land of Washington, Jefferson, Boone, Crockett, and Houston as the inhabitants and culture of Hosni Mubarach’s Egypt do to the land of the Pharaohs.