This exchange made the cut on NPR last week in a piece on Hispanics in the Republican Party, Republicans pandering to Hispanics, and that kind of thing, but it isn’t as much about Kirk Siegler’s Hispanic Latinos as NPR inevitably assumes. Read carefully, with an eye out for the F-bomb:
SIEGEL: If you’d written a paper in law school…
SIEGEL: …That draws directly on somebody else’s paper, as Melania’s speech drew upon Michelle Obama’s speech…
MUNIZ: Oh, that’s a tough one.
SIEGEL: …Would you get called out by a professor for that?
MUNIZ: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be picking fruit or something. But, no, the deal is, you know, I don’t think it’s plagiarizing. I see it as more as, like, rappers and comedians, you’re kind of borrowing from somebody else.
SIEGEL: It seems like sampling. Like…
MUNIZ: Yeah, sampling, there you go.
SIEGEL: …We convert some surface scratch thrown in when we came to those words.
MUNIZ: Yeah, sampling loops and beats. You know, and there’s no court to try you for using another politician’s words.
“I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be picking fruit or something.”
It never ends. This is how the Republican Party regards menial labor. Picking fruit isn’t something that one might do because it’s enjoyable, or because it’s honest work, or because it’s tolerable, or because it’s a shitty job but it pays some bills at the end of the week. No, picking fruit would be punishment for the academic disgrace of being caught at plagiarism. The message is clear: stay in school and don’t lift other people’s work without attribution, or you’ll find yourself doing wetback stoop labor, a professional disgrace. Of course, the Cathedral and its worshipers on both sides of the aisle have spent the last thirty or forty years broadcasting similar threats to young people about the horrible fates that they will face if they are merely honorable but mediocre students. The gist is, look, kid, you may not care for school, but you’ll end up dispossessed, impoverished, miserable, and regretful for the rest of your life if you don’t buckle down and do your homework.
It isn’t quite slavery, but it isn’t a whole lot better. The social control at play here is very different from the incentive of going to work because there’s a paycheck to be had. That mechanism is simple: work now and get paid as promised at the end of the week or the start of the month or whatever. The stay-in-school meme is predicated on a threat to financially and professionally punish the noncompliant for life.
A free people does not tolerate that sort of managerial saber-rattling. There have been industries and times in which labor unions have told the foreman to take that attitude and shove it up his ass. So have professional associations, guilds, faculty committees, and the like, which are unions by other names. It doesn’t take extreme solidarity for an entire workforce to muster the courage and confidence to tell management to back off with the aggression or face consequences. The degree of solidarity required seems extreme today only because so many of today’s workforces are so extremely atomized and intimidated. If you’re looking for extreme labor confidence, look at the Greyhound drivers’ union, which asserted the right of its members to sucker-punch scabs, or the Starbucks baristas’ union that obtained an NLRB ruling asserting its members’ right to scream obscenities at anyone present and call that protected labor speech. These are extreme, indefensible behaviors, but it isn’t too hard to see why they’re excused as pushback against the first-strike aggression of management and capital, which has a long, horrifying history. The Pinkertons didn’t just beat up strikers, and they certainly didn’t limit themselves to rude words. For that matter, I don’t think I’d have been out of line to tell Mother-in-Law that I had never yelled at her, so I’d like her to please not yell at me. She’d probably shit the cornerstone of St. Peter’s Basilica if the UFW showed up to pass out organizing literature and business cards, but she’s no Carnegie. American history is littered with belligerent, self-righteous business owners, robber barons, superintendents, and foremen who threw violent fits when they were told that they would no longer be the only ones with the whip hand in their shops. These are people who would rather throw the shoe at the President’s face than allow it to be put on the other foot.
Yes, do tell me about how unions are nothing but a bunch of mobbed-up, excuse-making bullshit. Preach.
There used to be a strain of Jeffersonian philosophy in this country that held menial labor in high regard as honorable work that needed to be done and deserved respect. John Fremont didn’t ride the Midwestern circuit dissing sharecroppers and field hands for being poor losers who deserved their lot in life because they should have stayed in school. To explain this to my contemporaries, I’d have to first answer their points of information, starting with who the fuck is John Fremont. For all the lesson plans devoted to that funny-looking manic-depressive in the stovepipe hat, one might expect Fremont, one of the greatest free soil agitators in world history and a political leader who blazed Lincoln’s trail, to also be taught in school. To be fair, he probably got a sentence or two in your history textbooks, maybe next to the paragraph about how they built a bunch of railroads and exploited some Chinamen. If I may line my top hat with tin foil, though, I get the feeling that Fremont is omitted, or alternately mentioned in passing alongside some comments about nameless mobs of racist whitey drunks burning Chinatown to the ground because they hated the fucking chinks, because he’s too subversive for the A List.
There’s a screenshot of a Facebook comment in circulation on time-waster websites in which an amazed student mentions that he (not she, I’m pretty sure) had just learned in school that Abraham Lincoln had been a real person, adding, “I thought that nigga was made up!” To skirt any existential questions (provide your own in the comments if you must), no, that nigga is not made-up, but much of his historiography is. I’m more honest to attribute “Robert! Cracker please!” to A. Philip Randolph than your history textbooks were to attribute what they did to old man Abe. I’m also more honest to say that Abe would have enjoyed the racial and sexual invective in these pages, including my tale of the Negro constable in Canada with the Indian drunkard for a corporal and the fish farmer and the pasty ginger for squad mates who used electricity to kill the fat crazy Pole who had just ridden to Vancouver in a two-hundred-ton flying machine. Most Americans wouldn’t believe this story, either, and Mark Saunders wouldn’t believe that I’m telling it again, but Lincoln was alive at a time when hardly a soul had the vision to publicly imagine racial integration, and Lincoln was not one of these few visionaries.
To answer the homeless vet I talked to at the rest area last night, this is what I’m doing with my history degree.
Personally, I can envision a future in which we’ve finally disentangled race from class and stopped being such a bunch of fucking assholes about both. Is this anything more than escapist nonsense? Hell if I know. I’d like to say yes, but the class history of the United States is just fucking ugly, so hope isn’t too rational here. Remember, the genesis of the white-black racial problem had to do with class, and much of the animosity between Latinos and Anglos today has to do with class. The only racial trouble in the United States that doesn’t have an immediately obvious class angle is the communal relationship between indigenous and colonizing communities, but even in this case there were colonists who regarded regional Indian tribes as class subversives and the white townspeople who ran off to live with them as something approximating dirty hippies. It’s actually relevant to note that putting Indians and blacks on the police force doesn’t necessarily solve anything, unless the problem is the inadequacy of Robert Pickton, Vince Li, Melissa Ann Shepard, Jian Ghomeshi, and Russell Williams as utterly tasteless Canada memes. (Don’t go complaining about Rob Ford, now. He had class, and he had mass.) There were black officers in the Chicago Police Department during the 1968 convention police riot, and race relations in Chicago have been some of the worst in the country for decades. There are now women on the force, too, but Atwater, Burgess, and Platt are on mostly good terms with Voight, so we’re diversely screwed. Notice, too, for what it’s worth, that Canadian police scandals so far do not involve domestic black sites and torture. (The RCMP gave foreign proxies, including the US government, the information they needed to abduct and torture Maher Arar.)
It’s hard to be optimistic about our national capacity for class reform while pondering the garbage that apparently engrosses so many Americans on television. We celebrate violent gangsterism in the Chicago Police Department and the mostly blind eyes of the decent cops witnessing it. We celebrate the vapid wankery and condescension of English aristocrats, and on federally subsidized public television, no less. Ellen Degeneres hasn’t been cast into cable obscurity for lack of ratings. The little solace we can take from this crap is the possibility that it’s what our masters want us to value, not what we would value if left to our own devices. It’s small solace because these wretched shows do not promptly flop and sink into permanent obscurity. The narcissism, the self-righteousness, and the aggression must resonate.
And of course we have, or at least until this year had, an entire major party that was all but explicitly devoted to the celebration of self-righteous racketeering and violence, among other vices. As I’ve said before, Trump is cleansing the Republican Party of much that long poisoned it. On the other hand, #ImWithHer is actively courting the same ugly elements to replace the remnants of the labor left as Democrats. This is yet another reason why the Democratic Party so richly deserves to be punished for what it has done to its base. It’s a sorry fucking excuse for a leading leftist party, and it’s time for the left to punch back. It’s time for labor, pluralist cultural leftists, and those who sympathize with either or both to force the Democratic Party to take stock or wither away. Hippies and the working class aren’t as incompatible with one another as they both are with the bipartisan managerial class that took over both major parties by the mid-nineties. The homeless vet at the rest area last night told me that he liked my pace when I was scavenging bottles. Several mornings earlier, a totally indolent-looking woman flying a sign at another rest area pointed me to a garbage bag that she thought might have some deposit bottles. I was wary of her, mainly because I still get a bit jumpy at the thought of someone ratting me out for rummaging through trash cans; she did not reciprocate. Another woman that morning, likely also homeless, insisted that I take some overripe bananas and give them to someone else if I didn’t want them.
We’re supposed to defer to the superior moral clarity of people who think of farm work as something they’d do in a counterfactual history featuring their disgrace as law students for academic plagiarism? Rod Blagojevich at his most gubernatorial had trouble matching that arrogance. It’s not as if we’re all salt-of-the-earth low rider friends on the streets and there’s nothing but cordial fellow feeling among the coffeehouse poories, but we’re damn well more modest and humble than that. Why the fuck should we refrain from mocking a man who uses his bar membership as an excuse to humblebrag about how he’s above picking fruit?
Why am I in the Willamette Valley but not picking fruit today? Mainly because I don’t want to get into tangles with busybodies who may have ongoing emotional stability problems for forty cents a pound right now. Also, I’m discerning more dignity in the deposit bottle hustle than in being yelled at by management and then asked whether I’m even able to afford the commute on what they’re paying me. Fine. Pay me more if you don’t think you’re paying me enough. By the way, I NEVER raised this subject with anyone in management at the berry farm.
You might think it’s the sign-flying panhandlers who don’t recognize the value of hard work. You’d think wrong. Homegirl at the rest area the other day was sincerely trying to help me out, and I might have followed her suggestion if I’d been willing to paw blindly through stomach-turning filth. Not knowing what was in that bag, I left it for someone else. Think of it as specialization of labor. Come to think of it, one thing I’ll say for Mike Rowe is that he wouldn’t call me a filthy shithead for seeing if there’s anything to be earned in the garbage. Television isn’t all moral pollution, then.
If you value work, you value work. You don’t stop respecting it because it isn’t primly bourgeois enough or because even a bum can do it. You don’t Make America Work Again (TM), because that is an explicit description of slavery. You don’t tolerate for-profit prison labor. You don’t talk about the dignity of work and then do everything in your power to strip work of its dignity. It isn’t necessary to know who the hell John Fremont was, but it is necessary not to shit all over his legacy. It is necessary to recognize that slaves, not freemen, are the ones who are forced to show their virtue at gunpoint.
I’m not fond of the flying of signs, but I’ve rarely met a bum who was as much of a toolbox as Robert Siegel’s Republican friend Muniz. Mixups in my Mind and Psychotarp both have better ethics than he does, and they’re insane. Party of Lincoln my fat white ass.