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DEMOCRACY FOR THE MASSES


Unless you can elbow your way to the top of your field, whatever it may be, you are not credited with real knowledge. You're just a worker, a drudge, a lowly clerk earning his minimum wage and hiding your faulty character from view. Why else would one find you at the bottom of the heap doing stuff no reasonable person would want to put up with? Think of our attitude to teachers, especially male teachers, stuck in classrooms in run-down public schools, lacking basic supplies like chalk and erasers, trying to teach kids from really poor neighborhoods without role models or good parents. That way lies futility, you think. Women can handle it, somehow. Male nurses? They're highly suspect for agreeing to empty bedpans and collect the bloody bandages from the floors of ERs. What about grease monkeys down in the pit of a lube station, draining oil and screwing in new filters, covered to their elbows with black oil? Is there anything more pitiful than a fry cook hunched over a smoking griddle flipping burgers and draining French fries from a deep fry tank? Or waitresses wearing cheap rubber soled shoes trudging in and out of a chaotic kitchen loaded with dirty dishes?

Such peons of the labor markets probably have jail time in their past; they can't get real jobs so they go down into the depths of the economy to the lowest niche of available labor. It stinks. It's dirty, its vile the way you are abused by those who have some right to insult you, exploit you, make you work over-time on holidays without paying you time-and-a-half. When someone from the upper world stumbles into your hell hole on the way to the bathroom and beholds you in your greasy apron and filthy work shirt, there is a moment of revulsion, a backing away from you, as if whatever sent you down into this pit were contagious. If someone parks your car for you at the restaurant, you give him a dollar, but you would be horrified if this same person were to make eyes at your daughter. The deliveryman bringing you a pizza is just a notch above a dog fetching the Sunday paper. You tip the guy, make a lame joke about the rain, and carefully bolt the door after he leaves. Uber drivers? No good. A broom pusher in the mall at closing time? A worthless automaton. Bring on the robots! Auto workers bolting in seats on the assembly line, miners in the depths of a tunnel in West Virginia, someone hauling in crates of vegetables from the loading dock of a grocery store.

All of them are the dross of democracy, the part of nature that can't be improved upon no matter how much money you spend on public education. These are the ones who slip through the cracks every year, who get pregnant at sixteen, kite a check at twenty, get fired three times in a row for being late to work. The imperfections of nature have burdened society with these duplicates and irregulars, these rejects from the genetic engines of proletarian love.

Why bother to exchange a pleasantry or ask for advice from one of these creatures, who might well be poking in the trash bins for returnable bottles one day? The social philosopher Jaques Ellul once observed that "The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more will men be alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured." Humanism implies there is no higher principle, and thus man becomes his brother's keeper, a merciless tyrant. To that end, personality is meted out to those who can control their bladders and bowels and taken back again the moment one loses that control. One is a baby, a kid, and then one is elderly, and untidy. There lies the limbo of nonexistence, a condition just above death where society must take over your functions. But personality is given by degrees; if you do not succeed at life, you're called by your first name. You don't deserve the respect of Mister or Miss; you are simply a generic person, a laborer, a mechanic, a thing, an object. You function in one small capacity and if you fail to be regular at it, you are fired.

This is the democracy we live in. There is very little equality built into the system; mobility is an illusion for the many. Unless you are born well, or get some substantial breaks because you are bright, you end up in the back of the class, you stumble into life with your stomach empty and your chances of success nonexistent. What you land from the employment office is the rudiment of an identity, but no more. It can't be refined or perfected, just maintained. The military has long understood this truth about the hierarchy of liberty -- that's why the lowest rank of the army is called the infantry, from the Latin word infans, one who can't talk. Prisons immediately stencil a number to your uniform and you are known by it thereafter. Having a name, a full one, Christian name and surname, are indicators of your social status; it means you are given wide latitude to determine your own life.

For some reason, in France the immobility of the lower orders is accepted. Shop clerks and janitors readily don their uniforms and perform duties with a measure of pride. Gutter cleaners in Paris are proud to wear their blue uniforms and to ply a plastic broom to direct the water streaming into the sewers. You don't find such workers ruing their lives; they take pride in doing a good job. I found this also true in Germany, in Italy, in Arab countries, where a job is all the identity one might need in this life. A job is a kind of soul to the ordinary citizen in many Asian countries.

But the "American dream" of everyone rising to the limit of their abilities and being rewarded accordingly makes them resent being left behind, being tied to a lowly job. Such work is a badge of shame met with disapproval by those who come to be served. Americans harbor the belief that they were chosen for more and better things, if only the chance presented itself. And chance, not effort, is the key to this longing -- a glass slipper for every woman, an Excalibur for every man.

When I happened to be shopping for a bottle of wine for dinner one evening, I was greeted by a heavy-set young guy of about twenty-one who struck me as poured into a mold, generic man. He had no distinguishing features, but smiled quickly and made a pitch for a few of his wines. I doubted he knew much about them. I had been drinking Malbecs, Argentine ones, that were cheap but held their own with bean soups and spicy foods. What about a Malbec, I asked him. Do you like them? He dropped his eyes momentarily and what he said next made a lasting impression on me. "I don't like them. They're monolithic." He didn't expect a response but moved on to the burgundies in the next row. He was right about the Malbecs. They're just a load of fruit with no subtlety. Just plonk, as the Brits would say. But how could this guy, who took home a salary of two hundred bucks a week, be so perceptive? He handed me a Chapoutier Rhone and said it was great for the money. I bought it; he was right again. He knew his wine. But don't you see? He had valuable knowledge, and taste, which I instinctively doubted. His store badge had only his first name on it, Ralph, to show me the degree of his servitude. He was trapped in his social niche, and no one could raise him out of it. But he could speak, and think, and express a notion of freedom he couldn't possess outright.

He was gone a few months later. I'm told he found a job at some discount chain, where he could earn a few more dollars a week. So it goes.

So when politicians seek votes from the lumpenproletariat, they do not assume there is a lively or liberated consciousness among them. They hire people who analyze their income brackets, their party affiliations, their religions, their personal data -- as a group, not as individuals. They can be handled by a few generalities, some promises about tax relief, some talk about fewer government regulations, not that anything can be done about the institutionalized inequality of the tax system, or the forces that determine employment in the region. If the average voter could see past the political enchantments and discover the determinants that keep them needy, they would listen harder and be more suspicious, and not give up their votes without an argument. But TV and cable shows, call-in radio and other forms of propaganda keep beating prejudice and fear into their heads, and vilifying liberals in general as the enablers of minorities and women, of moral relativism and sexual liberation, until they are too numb to ask questions.

So they vote for the very men and women who work against their interests and keep them where they are, under the heel of power and influence. Perhaps some time in the distant future, a generation will rise up against this vicious tyranny of money over the poor and the average, but until then, the castles of the lords of America are being built and moated and the forces of law and order paid handsomely to protect them from the growing frustration of those left out.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen