Out for an early morning milk run. Guy ahead of me at the counter just off the night shift at a small factory nearby and buying his breakfast which seemed chosen more to give him a quick sugar buzz than an infusion of nutrients and necessary fiber---in short, he was having for breakfast what I routinely have for lunch. Big, beefy, young, I peg him at about thirty, with a shaved head, an earring, and an infectious smile. A young father, as it turns out. He’s telling the clerk how he can’t wait to get home and get the kids off to school so he can dive into bed.
The clerk, a middle-aged woman who has seen it all and not much cared for the view, appreciates this. As far as she seems to be concerned, the whole point of school is to get the kids out of the house so parents can get some sleep.
The young father tells her how glad he is his kids are back in school. They had yesterday off for Yom Kippur, which was a problem for him and his wife because neither could get the time off. And this is after Friday’s half-day of school. Teacher planning day.
“They were supposed to be spending the day ‘planning.’” he said with a sneer in his voice though his smile stayed cheerful and friendly. “By one o’clock there wasn’t a teacher in that building. Planning? Planning for what I’d like to know.”
“Planning for their weekend,” the clerk said.
“Damn straight,” the young father said.
“Yep,” I said, surprised at the sound of my own voice, because I usually don’t butt in, “What do they need to plan for? They make it all up as they go along.”
The two of them looked hard at me. His smile froze. They knew I wasn’t really agreeing with them and they suspected what was coming.
“Only job in the world where they don’t have to spend time thinking about what they’re going to do and figuring out how they’re going to do it. Every day it’s a surprise to them what comes out of their mouths.”
The young father had no idea what to say to that. Besides he was in a hurry. His kids had to catch their bus. He paid for his breakfast and left.
I stepped up to the counter and set my milk down. The clerk was still staring at me. I said, trying not to sound belligerent but trying not to sound apologetic either, “It’s a tough job. Teachers work hard.”
“Some of them do,” the clerk said. “The good ones. But how many’s that?” She held up her hand, fingers spread wide. “You look back, you can probably count on one hand the really good teachers you had.”
I didn’t say, “That could be all your grade school teachers or half the teachers you had in junior high,” and I didn’t say, “That’s the way it is at every workplace, isn’t it? A few highly competent people do the heavy lifting while everybody else coasts.” I said, “Actually, I was lucky. I need both hands.” Which is true, depending on what you mean by “really good.” The clerk seemed startled by this news. But I figured it was best to put an end to the subject and get out of there before I ruined her and my morning. I tapped one of my gallons of milk. “I’d like to use my milk card to get one of these free.”
Now, of course, I’m defensive of teachers. I’ve been one. I’m related to several. My kids depend on them and incidentally have had many good ones over the years, more than they can count on one hand. And as it happens I was lucky. I did have many good teachers, but part of the reason is that I had a lot of teachers, because I got to go to college and graduate school. And part of it is that I grew up in an upper middle class suburb with high property taxes that few taxpayers more than flinched a little at paying because they could afford it and because they were the parents of the later and larger wave of baby boomers and were sending their own small tribes through the schools. Our school district had the money to attract the best teachers.
I don’t know if the clerk and the young father live in this district, which isn’t as well-off as the one I grew up in but is still better off than many---and that relative prosperity doesn’t just allow us to attract fine teachers, it allows us to give them the support they need to be fine teachers. And I don’t know where they grew up and I sure wasn’t going to ask.
And the point isn’t how many good teachers there are anyway or how many good teachers the clerk and the young father had when they were growing up or what they think of the teachers they actually know.
The point is that they don’t get Yom Kippur off with pay. They don’t have long weekends every month, and definitely not two in some months. They don’t get week long vacations at Christmas and in the spring. They don’t get two months off every summer. They aren’t paying into the relatively generous and secure (for now) New York State pension system. They don’t get their health care benefits through the state.
They can’t afford to take the day off whenever their kids’ schools decide to give the kids a snow day or send the teachers to a conference. For them, an important job of schools is to provide free day care.
Of course they’re jealous of teachers and, unfortunately, jealousy has a habit of expressing itself in bitterness and resentment. They don’t want teachers to get less. Not really. What they want is more for themselves and their families but they don’t see any chance of that happening soon.
It’s wasn’t teachers who designed an economic system that has no problem using vast numbers of human beings as beasts of burden and pays those human beings based on the same logic and degree of compassion a stingy farmer would have towards feeding an ox or a mule, which is to give them no more than they need to get through the work day with the strength to do the job at hand, and also has the same stingy farmer’s expectation of uncomplaining patience and dumb gratitude from his livestock.
(My metaphor’s dating quickly. More and more the system treats workers as robots not livestock and the owners of that system seem to think that workers should be paid as if they’re robots too and that they have a robot’s need for sleep, rest, praise, appreciation, medical care, time for families, vacations, and comfortable retirements.)
And it’s not teachers who fight like fiends to protect that system from any attempt to humanize it or extend its benefits.
But teachers are easy targets. They’re right there and you can insult them even in their company without worrying that if it gets back to your boss you’ll lose your job. Bosses resent teachers too, for some of the same reasons. For other reasons too, reasons that have to do with protecting the system as it is, but nevermind that for now. And it’s just easier to understand and express however bitterly your wish that you had what teachers have than to figure out why you don’t have it and who is to blame, because when you get right down to it what is it that teachers have? A sane and sanity-preserving number of days off a year, a truly decent amount of vacation time, a pretty good health care plan, a salary that pays them almost half of what they deserve, and the expectation of a comfortable and secure retirement.
Seems like the very minimum of what the supposedly richest and most generous country in the world should offer to all its citizens.
How come we don’t and who’s to blame?
Who should I be mad at if not the teachers?
The banksters. The suits.
But what good does it do to get mad at them? Who listens? Who cares? Who’s going to do something?
Some members of Congress are listening. They care and they’re trying to things. But the Village Media would rather bring President John McCain back for another buttering up on a talk show or let President-Never-in-a-Million-Years Gingrich hog another camera or put Glenn Beck on the cover of the magazine.
Liberal Congressmen and women and liberal Senators have a similar problem as vampires in front of mirrors---they are invisible to the Village cameras.
Fortunately, liberal Presidents don’t have the same problem, much as the Insiders wish it weren’t the case. This liberal President commands the rapt attention of cameras.
I believe the President is listening. I believe he cares. I believe he is trying. I don’t agree with everything he’s trying to do and I wish he would try harder to do what I do agree with. I wish he would (or could) do more. But no matter how much he is trying to do and how much he wants to do, I also wish he’d sound more like he cares and like he’s trying.
I wish he’d find a way not to express his anger---there are reasons he has to be careful about that---but to acknowledge our anger and harness it and direct it towards the right targets.
In short, I wish he would be more of a rabble-rouser.
The United States has had only three effective rabble-rousers as President, and fortunately two of them were progressives, although only one of them was a radical, and that one wasn’t Franklin Roosevelt.
FDR didn’t have to be a radical because Teddy Roosevelt had gotten there thirty years before him.
What Franklin had to do was remind people they believed what Teddy had convinced their parents of.
Watching last night’s episode of Ken Burns’ The National Parks increased my already high opinion Teddy Roosevelt. And what TR said of the national parks he helped create and the system he put into place to protect and preserve them---that they are for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, and by the people he meant the same people Lincoln meant, and Lincoln meant the ones declaring themselves the governors of these United States in the opening words of the Constitution, WE the People, all of us---and what he said about the forest reserves---“The forest reserves should be set apart forever for the the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few”---and what he said about all the nation’s natural resources---that the “rights of the public to the national resources outweigh private rights”---he meant to apply to everything about the nation. We own it, not you, not I, not they. We. And we all have a right to share in its benefits.
As Timothy Egan writes in his forthcoming book about the professionalization of the U.S. Forest Service, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America :
Roosevelt’s task was not just to convince people to cherish their national heritage, but to understand that it was their right in a democracy to own it---every citizen owning a stake. In an era of free-for-all-capitalism, [this idea] was revolutionary.
That at the time very few people shared in the benefits of the nation they owned was in large part due to the efforts of a few rich men, and Roosevelt knew exactly who they were, because for one thing they were not shy about identifying themselves and unapologetically declaring their belief in their right to own and make money off of whatever they could lay their hands on.
Roosevelt, in his turn, was not shy about pointing them out and calling them what they were, “the most dangerous members of the criminal class, the malefactors of great wealth.”
“There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American,insensitive to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.”
He wrote that while he was still McKinley’s Vice-President but one way or another he said it after he became President himself, loudly and often.
And the men he was talking about hated him for it, and they hated him more for winning so many of the fights they had with him. Eventually they took control of his party and ran him out of it. But it was too late. TR won the argument for the next seventy years.
Now, you don’t need to remind me that Teddy Roosevelt could be a warmonger (although at least he had the good grace to go get himself shot at in the war he helped start), and he was a (half-hearted) imperialist and a racist (of the Take Up the White Man’s Burden sort, but still). He wasn’t my ideal President. That would be Franklin Roosevelt. He wasn’t the best. That would be Franklin again. And although his ideas were radical and his goals were Progressive he didn’t always go about achieving them in either a radical or a Progressive way. My point here is simply that he invented the bully pulpit, which was named after his favorite superlative, but which might as well have been named after what he used it for, which was not to bully anybody, but to identify for the people the bullies who were bullying them, and I wish that President Obama would use it more and sound more like TR or FDR when he does take to it.
Seventy years from the end of TR’s Presidency brings us to the eve of Reagan’s, and of course the eight years of Reagan’s Presidency were when the malefactors of great wealth, who had never completely given up control of the government, wrestled a lot more of it away from the people, and they’ve held onto what they’ve grabbed and been at work grabbing more in the two and a half decades since. It may seem that TR finally lost the debate. But carefully and intelligently designed polls show that isn’t the case.
Reagan cheerfully made the case that the country belonged to those with the money to buy (or leverage unto themselves) large chunks of it. His Interior Department almost literally put For Sale signs on the national
forests wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. (Corrected thanks to fed-up fed.) He was happy to see the malefactors of great wealth carrying off the nation’s resources in big black bags marked LOOT. He got away with this by persuading people who were being robbed that they were part of the gang of robbers or would be soon enough and the only reason they hadn’t received their cut of the swag yet was that liberals were snatching it away to give to…THEM!
But in a way this was his mistake. He was never able to persuade people, because he didn’t really try, that they didn’t want or deserve their cut. That is, he suggested but could never sell the argument that working people shouldn’t expect any benefits from living here except the ones the rich folks who owned the place deigned to give us.
Now that the financial collapse has made people wake up to the fact that should have been plain all along---we’re not going to get our cut, and what we do have barely covers the cost of living here, and the only way we’ll get to keep that, if things continue as they are, is if we’re really, really lucky, people are mad. They feel they’ve been played for suckers, which they have. They’re looking for somewhere to place their anger and so far they’ve been offered two choices---on themselves (Your fault for being a loser, loser!) or on the targets offered to them by the demagogues on the Right.
And because people don’t like hating themselves, don’t like feeling like chumps and losers, it’s not a surprise that many of them have accepted the Right’s offer.
And that’s how we get the great irony of the Tea Parties, thousands of people marching to preserve the system that screwed them into the ground.
Thousands of people furious at the thought that the bandits who robbed them and the con artists who bamboozled them won’t get to keep robbing them and bamboozling them as much as they were allowed to when their stooge, George W. Bush, was President.
Look, I’m not saying the clerk and the young father at the convenience store this morning were Tea Baggers or even Republicans. Their conversation was casual and probably meaningless to them. The young father wanted to get home to bed. The clerk would have just as soon badmouthed investment bankers as teachers and Martians or Brazilian soccer players or even Tea Baggers just as soon as either teachers or bankers.
For all I know they both voted for Obama and are proud of it.
Their conversation was about what most conversations between passing strangers are about and can be boiled down to this: “Hey there, friend, I recognize that you are a fellow human being with troubles and pains just like mine and I wish life was better for both of us.”
All I’m saying is that I would have liked it if instead of overhearing them ragging on teachers I heard one of them say to the other, “Did you hear what President Obama said about the insurance companies? He called them the real Death Panels,” and the other say back, “Yeah, that was a good one, but I liked it better when he called the guys on Wall Street bandits” and then the two of them agree that Teddy Roosevelt was right, about the malefactors of great wealth and about the country being for the benefit and enjoyment of all of we the people.
Episode One and Episode Two of The National Parks are available to watch online. The website is great fun and it includes a page on Teddy Roosevelt that comes with some clips from Episode Two, in case you don’t have time to watch the whole thing right now.
Wednesday morning update: Episode Three of The National Parks is online as of today.
Carl of Simply Left Behind has been thinking along the same lines on the question of who gets to share in the benefits of living in the United States in these two posts, Fairness and Barbarba Ehrenreich made me late for work today.
In the comments, Minstrel Hussein Boy, who I believe is Native American and who is enjoying the series, points out that the National Parks system presents some uneasy questions for Native Americans:
there are several native american nations who look at many of our parks as monuments to stolen land. it really doesn't make it better that it's being shared with everybody, it's still, for the most part, stolen.
ask the chumash about [Yosemite]. ask the havasupai about the grand canyon. ask the chiricauhua about cochise monument, ask the lakotah and the cheyenne about mount rushmore and the black hills, ask the paiute about zion national, ask the navajo about painted desert....the list my friends, is truly endless.
This is why you should check out the PBS series website. There are all kinds of things that couldn’t be included in the broadcast, including a 10 minute video about Mount Rushmore where the park superintendent, Gerard Baker is trying to deal with those questions. Baker is a Mandan-Hidasta Indian.