A week or so ago I heard a politician–probably Rudy Giuliani, but it might
have been someone else–giving a speech at some sort of memorial service for victims of S11. (We activist types write all dates that way since A16, the
first major protests against the IMF/World Bank in DC on 16 April 2000).
“When were kids,” the speaker said, “and people asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, what did we say? ‘A policeman.’ ‘A fireman.’ Well, we
grew up and we didn’t do that. But today I tell you, when we are asked what
we want to be, we say again, ‘A policeman! A fireman!'”
It was a damn good speech, one you could tell was bringing tears and shivers to the eyes and spines of everyone in the audience. Geo. Bush ought to hire that speech writer, though he might have to work a little on his delivery. But it got me thinking again of something that occurred to me some time ago.
Think back, if you can, to a Fischer-Price village. I had one (actually,
two, I think) as a kid, and they sometimes had them at preschools and
doctor’s offices, at least in my white upper middle class existence.
Fischer-Price villages are little miniature cities, complete with houses and
stores and hospitals and police stations and fire stations, and little
people who work and live and shop in all these places. And the amazing
thing about all these little people (aside from the fact that they all smile
all the time) is that they are all absolutely equal in stature–equally
clean, equally well-equipped, equally important in the functioning of this
little city. And when you’re a kid, especially a kid young enough to be
playing with these things still, that’s the way you think the world is.
Being a policeman or a garbage collector or a window washer is no different
from being a doctor or a lawyer or a banker in the world of Fischer-Price,
in the world we are taught to believe in as children.
And not only is everyone’s job equally important, but everyone’s job is also
equally real. There are no systems analysts or customer (guest, if you work
at Target) service assistants or departmental executive officers. The
worldview of children may be the closest thing to Marxism ever to have
existed–no one is alienated from the product or meaning of her work,
everyone works according to his abilities and receives according to his
needs. (For those of you who may have difficulties with Marx, you could
also think of this as Christianity in its purest form–there a number of
passages in the Bible Marx could well have been cribbing from.)
But of course that’s not the world we grow up and live in, and it’s not the
world most of us think of every day. After the age of twelve or so, nobody
I knew was saying they wanted to be a policeman or a fireman or even a
pilot, at least not in front of grownups. We were going to become
journalists, mathematicians, scientists, diplomats, doctors, lawyers,
bankers, architects, professors. A few people said they were going to
become musicians (classical) or artists (but they would teach, too). The
world, it seemed, could function with just those professions filled. That
there were people who mopped the floors, drove the buses, built the
buildings, we knew, but somehow these people were not us. We were not
responsible for their livelihood or well-being. Obviously, if they really
wanted to, they could become doctors and lawyers and bankers, too. Wasn’t
that the story of every biography we read?
The world is disturbing to me these days, as it is to many people. But the
world has been disturbing to me for a long, long time, and I suspect it will
continue to be so long after we’ve forgotten that we want to be volunteers,
that we want to help out, that we want to be heroes, long after we’ve
returned the illusion of peace, which, as another famous Marxist noted, is
“nothing but a period of truce between wars.”
Martin Luther King defined true peace as not merely the absence of tension
but also the presence of justice. I used to believe that, too–but that was
back before the acquittal of a police officer in Cincinnati, before the
deletion of the names of “possible felons” from the voting rolls in Florida,
before Madeleine Albright ever said the price was worth it, before I stopped
wanting to play with my Fischer-Price village, even–back when I believed in
that piece of graffiti some ruffian carved above the Supreme Court: Equal
Justice Under Law.