This article was originally published at goodmenproject.com.
Ten years ago, as I sat with my parents in John Foster Dulles airport on our way out of the country, I happened upon a thick-accented custodian who amused me with a quick magic coin trick. After duping me, she ruffled my hair, chuckled and kept on sweeping the floor. In the moment, all awed and enamored, I swore that I would be just like her as a grownup: warm, enthusiastic about my work and friendly to children. (In fact, when I worked as a cashier many years later, I did this woman proud by playing magic tricks on customers whenever I got the chance.)
Alas, about ten minutes after our encounter, my new custodian friend was accosted by a belligerent passenger who apparently thought that the worker was standing in his way. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” I wanted to shout at the patron, “She’s the most decent woman on earth!” But in my moment of disgust and incredulity, I stayed silent.
The older I got, the more common and disturbing these sorts of experiences became. I had peers in my large public high school who did not just tacitly dismiss our janitors but outright mocked them behind their backs. When a custodian swept by my table during lunch one day and uttered something indiscernible, a classmate reassured the table, “He’s just a janitor. Why should we care what he said?”
These attitudes are the fruits of a culture that has disastrously confused social value with social prestige. When the Heritage Foundation intellectual Russell Kirk demonized the “growing proletariat” for contributing “nothing much to society except their offspring,” perhaps he, like so many of us, forgot that without these reviled “proletarians,” our society — our roads, schools, office buildings, and houses — would literally fall apart. Sure, they make less money than Kirk did and may never have fancy titles, but does that make them less benevolent, virtuous, respectable or human? Where there is a noble person, there is a noble profession.
I think of my friend at Dulles airport because she always uses her job to enrich the lives of others, whereas the person for whom her workplace is named — Secretary of State John Foster Dulles — did not. When the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 for his opposition to the United Fruit Company, Dulles declared it the “biggest success in the last five years against Communism.” When, a bit earlier, Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh challenged Western control over Iranian oil, the Secretary of State supported his replacement as well, ushering in the Shah of Iran who dispatched the SAVAK to torture thousands of Iranian prisoners with “electric shock, whipping” and “beating.” To now deify Dulles as a national hero is to betray the working folks of the 1950s — the real heroes — who brought integrity and humanity to their jobs every single day.
And yet it is Dulles, and people like him, after whom we name our airports, highways and office buildings and upon whom we lavish wealth, recognition and adulation. I suppose that demanding anything different in our society will be laughable to many: should we really celebrate manual laborers the way we now idolize movie stars, politicians, war-makers, and CEOS?
Well, no, because our idolization of celebrities today is not as much based on their actual social contributions as it is on their image, looks, wealth, titles and superficial accolades. Just as there are greedy and self-absorbed VIPs who do not deserve all of the hoopla they get, there are, no doubt, the same kind of cashiers and custodians who shamefully fail to maximize the social utility and benefit of their professions. The intolerable part of the status quo is not that “ordinary” folks aren’t privileged over big shots but that even the most noble ordinary folks are subordinated to the most ignoble big shots. It’s that the crass, while praying to ascend to Ken Lay‘s (former) position someday, call diligent and kind working-class people “losers.” It’s that we socially divide ourselves on the basis of wealth and income while ignoring the benevolent capacity of people who work jobs considered beneath the professional class. It’s that we joke about certain jobs as if they were not filled by real people who extract livings and purposes from the indispensable work that they do.
Dr. King once suggested, “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures…Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” Not all of us have yet taken King’s advice or replicated his spirit towards our fellow working people. Our continuing class snobbery and contempt have done a great disservice to the moral integrity of our society. It’s time we change that.
There are many interesting and important anniversaries occurring this summer. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Lyndon Johnson— a momentous step towards ending discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin. Two weeks ago we remembered the 50th anniversary of the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney— three young men who were registering blacks to vote in Mississippi. Those events were part of what we know as Freedom Summer.
This summer we also remember the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI. It was on June 28, 1914 that Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie were murdered by a Bosnian nationalist. This led Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia, and this in turn grew into The Great War, which enveloped all of Europe and eventually engaged the United States and Japan as well. One of the deadliest wars in history, more than 70 million military personnel were mobilized, of which about 9 million died on the battlefield.
On July 31 we will remember the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès. Most Americans are not familiar with him, but his role in reshaping European politics was extremely significant. I have made no secret that Jaurès has been influential for me in my own political development. Who was he? Jaurès was a French parliamentarian; leader of the French social democrats (at that time called the French Socialist Party). He was a prolific writer, and editor of the French socialist journal L’Humanité. During his time, the socialist parties of Europe were dominated by classical Marxists who believed that capitalism would collapse due to its own natural excessive behavior. However some leaders in the parties concluded that it wasn’t going to happen and pushed for changes in strategy that included participation in electoral politics. In Germany, Bernstein led the way, but the government structure there didn’t allow for parliamentary elections. The story was different in France, and it was Jaurès who led the charge. His proposal was that Socialists should enter parliament and work in coalition with other parties representing other constituencies to achieve the socialist goals. It was through his leadership that various socialist factions joined together to form the Left Bloc and push through legislation separating church and state. His use of parliament to constrain the destructive behavior of capitalism while at the same time allowing a limited free market has been copied around the world. It is unfortunate that the impact was not immediately felt, but eventually it would lead to an enduring stability in western Europe when social democrats took charge at the end of WWII.
In was at this time 100 years ago that France was getting ready to engage in a catastrophic war prompted by the murder of Franz Ferdinand. Jaurès was very vocal against the war. In fact, he was planning to attend a conference of the Socialist International in August where he would speak out against it. Unfortunately, a French nationalist would shoot him dead at a cafe in Paris on July 31. So ended the life of this great man. But his legacy lives on. Tomorrow, the French and Germans meet each other on the battlefield once again. This time it will be in the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. It is a wondrous development of civilization that replaces war with sports. While Tea Partier Ann Coulter may prefer that Americans express their nationalism by killing foreigners instead of playing soccer, I’m sure the members of the American Mens National Team are happy to live to play another day.
When teaching children about racism and genocide, educators often focus on individual biases as the source of systematic racism and anti-Semitism. For example, at my synagogue, teachers often ask their students to put themselves in the shoes of Christian German civilians during the Holocaust and consider whether they, as non-Jews, would have simply shrugged off anti-Semitic slurs and the sight of innocent people in yarmulkes being attacked by policemen. Questions like this spark a discussion of bullying and anti-bullying in American schools today. In the process, “racism” becomes a dysfunctional interpersonal phenomenon, and the Holocaust, as a result, becomes a simple amalgamation of millions of acts by individual racists who allowed their prejudices to get out of hand. By the end of a course on the subject, many students assume that the only way to save Hitler’s victims would have been to speak out against incidental anti-Semitism before it escalated into genocide. As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “challenging belittling jokes” and not “accepting stereotypes” are good ways to prevent a society from escalating into acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and then genocide.
Combatting individual prejudices certainly can help stop mass atrocities, but, in an educational context, this truism is incomplete because it ignores the systematic mobilization of hatred and violence by governmental authority. Even though many German schoolchildren were too reticent in the face of schoolyard anti-Semitism and could have spoken up, we must not overstate the practical impact that several more German dissidents could have had once the genocide was actually underway, nor should we pretend that the world was helpless to stop the Holocaust once Germans’ prejudices had spiraled so murderously out of control.
In our case, American students today must know that our government, even without changing the hearts of individual anti-Semitic Germans, could have saved many more of Hitler’s victims and that fighting prejudice, though immeasurably valuable, would not have been enough to compensate for the Allies’ failure to intervene on the victims’ behalf.
The US government’s shameful policy of proroguing on the Holocaust was underway by December of 1942 when President Roosevelt met with a Jewish delegation imploring him to stop the genocide. Although Roosevelt intimated at the meeting that his administration “shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” the proceeding few months panned out much differently.
In February of 1943, the Rumanian government suggested that it would transport 70,000 Jews into Allied territory in exchange for roughly 130 dollars per refugee. Though such a proposal probably would have required further examination and negotiation, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles simply dismissed it out of hand, lambasting it as a hoax of “the German propaganda machine” to “create confusion and doubt within the United Nations.” The Nuremberg trials elucidated, however, that the offer was sincere and that, with only a little bit of extra research, the State Department would have known to capitalize on the offer.
With that in mind, perhaps we should be asking students what their forbears in the United States could have done to pressure their government to act on the Rumanian proposal. When organizations pushing the United States to accept Rumania’s offer were denigrated as inflammatory and overdramatic, how could our forbears have normalized the struggle for genocide victims and defended the efforts of those who were advocating positive action?
It is no exaggeration to say that the Allies’ “efforts” at saving Hitler’s victims were laced with unconcern and faux-outrage at most key turns thereafter. To the world, our leaders were “devastated” by what was happening to European Jewry, but, in private, they were much more insouciant about the matter. In fact, to absolutely no objection, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden once said outright in a 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt that “we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.” When Eden expressed concern that “Hitler might take us up on any such offer” and that the Allied Powers would have to find new homes for Jewish refugees, he was greeted with nonchalance and tacit agreement.
Today, students of the Holocaust or any other systemic atrocity should not ask themselves only how more people could have acted individually to condemn incidental bigotry, as important as that question is; they should ask how thousands upon thousands of people could have acted in tandem to pressure their governments to save thousands upon thousands of victims. We should remember that the Holocaust was not only an exercise of individual prejudice but also an exercise of systemic governmental apathy and an exhibition of societies’ unfortunate tendency to shrug their proverbial shoulders amidst large-scale suffering.
Each year the Coalition for Economic Justice holds a dinner to celebrate the efforts of various groups and individuals. The CEJ is an amalgam of groups who work together on the behalf of workers, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, and the environment. I was pleased to attend along with Michael Mottern, our local leader in Buffalo. Admittedly, it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (a little less than 4 hours). The weather was great. Mid week, mid day travel presented no traffic obstacles except for road construction (thank you PA legislature for finally passing a transportation funding bill that puts people to work). The awards dinner was this past Thursday evening, everything was well organized, and Michael and I had a wonderful time. Not only did we get to promote Social Democrats USA, we refreshed relationships, and were genuinely encouraged by the efforts of so, so many people. We even had time for a couple of beers.
The key note speaker was Barbara Young. It’s easy to remember her name because Barbara comes from Barbados. She came to NYC 20 years ago to be a domestic worker. After working in the business and networking with other domestic workers, she realized that working conditions desperately needed to be improved. But organizing thousands of individual contractors is a lot more complicated than organizing the workers at a single plant with a single employer. Barbara realized that she would need to go beyond traditional organizing. There were three important components to her strategy— lobby state legislature, lobby the employers, and be persistent. Lobby the employers? Yes, indeed. Many of the domestics in NYC work for Jewish families with two working adults. Barbara learned that Jews are generally sympathetic to leftist issues, so she decided to work that angle. She pressed the argument that these domestic workers are taking care of America’s most precious assets: our children and our elderly. These Jews formed Shalom Bayit (peace in the home); an organization that helps organize domestic workers. They promoted it through a network of synagogues. Then together, Domestic Workers United and Shalom Bayit took the matter to Albany, and after 8 diligent years were able to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010— the first such legislation in America! Barbara deserves a lot of credit for seeing a problem, devising a solution, and not giving up until she was successful.
I had a few minutes to speak with Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western NY Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Richard was keynote speaker at our 2012 Convention. We reminisced over that event, which was held at Rust Belt Books. With a big smile he told me what a great time he had, and that if we ever hold the convention in Buffalo again to make sure we invite him. Although Richard is not too far away from retirement, he continues to do great work for organized workers in Western NY. At the CEJ dinner he was honored to give remarks about new efforts to work with people outside the normal constituency of Labor. We recall during the national AFL-CIO convention when we heard Rich Trumka tell us that all of us are under attack and that the 99% can no longer view itself as a multitude of constituencies, but instead must realize that we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists, trade unionists, gay right activists, civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists— we must work as coalition if we are to make any progress. We saw then for the first time non-trade unionists speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. We see now trade unionists supporting gay rights. There is a sense of cooperation that I’ve never seen before. I come from Western Pennsylvania, an area where union members are not liberals. They didn’t support civil rights, they didn’t support immigrant rights, they didn’t support gay rights. But now they realize that if we don’t all work together, we’re pretty much screwed. I think trade unionists are seeing the light, and I am optimistic about the current direction.
We also had opportunity to connect with political leaders in Buffalo. Michael and I sat at the table with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and compared issues in Erie County (Buffalo) and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), including Marcellus shale drilling, welfare administration, parks, and airport authorities. We also got to spend a few moments with Michael LoCurto, City of Buffalo Council member. Michael is a well known progressive and received an award at the dinner for his efforts. We also established a relationship with Betty Jean Grant, Erie County Legislature member (district 2). She was very open to our message of economic rights and jobs for all.
Lastly, I want to mention Beverly Newkirk. She leads an organization called “It Takes a Village”. As a young woman she had the incredible privilege of working with Bayard Rustin (our chair during the 70′s), A Philip Randolph, Ernie Green, and other notables in the civil rights movement. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Recruitment and Training Program. The function of the RTP was to recruit and train minorities for jobs in the construction industry. Randolph was Chair and Rustin was Vice Chair. Their annual conference was an important calendar event for anyone in politics. She says the experiences of those times changed her life and she is eternally grateful.
Looking forward to next year.