Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Peasant Problem

We have a peasant problem today in America. Call it a shortage, call it a supply side problem, call it a broad reluctance to play the game. The idea of a servile working class is a useful one that has served us well for centuries. So why is it outmoded, and who outmoded it? I blame intellectuals. What exactly is the problem that intellectuals have with people who bother to look picturesque while doing the kind of work even intellectuals don’t know how to do for themselves, like polishing the silver and cleaning the commode, by which I don’t mean the small antique cupboard in the den?

Or harvesting root vegetables. Harvesting root vegetables is one of the more picturesque activities in the job description of “Peasant”. Bending over for hours on end in colorful peasant garb in attractive autumnal landscapes is wonderfully gymnastic. (It almost makes you want to grab your camera. You probably have one in the glove box of your Range Rover.) What I especially like is when they unbend themselves at your approach (camera in hand, stepping carefully not to plant your Wellies into any serious muck) tugging their forelocks and nodding gratefully. And they ought to be grateful. Whose land is it? Not theirs. That is what makes peasants so happy-go-lucky.

Oh to be so landless and carefree again! Thinking about the gypsy life always gives one a nostalgic clutch in the throat. Traveling light from one employment to the next. Sleeping under the stars. Bearing children in the open air. (Peasant children are darling and dark-eyed and a dime a dozen.) Defecating in ditches adjacent to the fields is such a friendly, communal ritual. Then, when the season ends, slipping quietly across the border, out of the reach of burdensome social services into the sunny tax-havens to the south where peasants are free to live as peasants have always preferred to live: in little cardboard boxes.

So why is peasantry a foreign monopoly? Where are our homegrown peasants? And what effect does this dependence on the imported variety have on national security? Unbeknownst to Americans schooled by Communist textbook writers under Eisenhower, a vast pogrom was organized during the fifties (exactly as you would expect, by social workers and unions), in which millions of happy American peasants were forcibly converted into decently-paid blue collar workers. If this reminds you of what Stalin did to the kulaks I won’t need to tell you where Eisenhower got the idea. Trainloads of weeping peasants all across the land were forced at the point of a gun to exchange their colorful rag-tag peasant costumes for Sans-a-belt pants and Ban-Lon shirts or attractive, sensible housedresses from Sears and Robert Hall, and herded into spanking clean, electric-lit Cape Cods set in grassy lawns among bewildering suburban cul-de-sacs from which they would never escape.

Thousands of years of cherished folkways were lost during the fifties. No more peasant folk-dances, or crowds of bright eyed children merrily thrusting their filthy hands into our purses while we shop. When is the last time you were charmed by the sight of a peasant picturesquely defecating out of doors or giving birth under a hedgerow? These heartening sights, which gave a pleasing certainty to our sense of being better than those who toiled, are now gone forever, “one with Ninevah and Tyre,” whatever the hell that means.

Is it really too late to go back? Judge for yourself. Listen to the compassionate, carefully coded words coming from our clear-eyed President. There are instructions galore on President Bush’s Department of Labor websites helpfully suggesting ways for employers to avoid paying workers what they’ve earned or providing benefits they were tricked into providing by previous Presidents of both parties who were secretly Communists. Things are afoot that may yet return a happy, low-cost, American-born peasantry to our streets. For decades working Americans have been confined in air-conditioned workplaces and burdened with rights and privileges while being deprived of fresh air and exercise and the freedom to sleep rough. But wiser heads have prevailed in important, furtive ways. Under the traditional American rubric of “every man for himself,” thousands of citizens a day are being freed from the bonds of well-paid, benefit-provided employment. Today, mortgages that have trapped Americans into a cycle of perpetual homeownership are being cheerfully foreclosed. The outcry you hear is probably shrieks of joyful surprise. Family vehicles that environmental busybodies complained were too big are just about big enough to sleep a family of four if the family members are short, and shortness is just perfect for being a peasant: being undernourished helps one grow up shorter than average and being closer to the ground means not having to bend quite as far. It also makes it easy for us to look down on the help. Soon, the cast-off rags of the Haves (that’s us), some barely used, will be put to good use patching the threadbare clothes of the new peasantry, turning them back into the colorful rag-tag garments of yore.

Yore. There’s a word you probably haven’t seen used in a sentence for a while. Get ready to see it a lot more. Lots of well-off Americans will find their vocabularies strained to new limits trying to describe their delight at how cheap and compliant the new peasantry is. And they will have lots more time and motivation to get out their thesauruses. The days of yore were the wondrous bygone times when there were actual, handsomely dressed, well-educated but idle aristocrats sitting on fence-posts with pencil and paper, writing poems while watching the brightly-clad peasantry bend picturesquely in the fields between moments spent conceiving and bearing more peasants in the hedgerows. I, for one, plan to be a poet as soon as I make sure I belong to the aristocracy.

How will you know if you are an aristocrat or a peasant? There are several ways of finding this out. One is to ask yourself if you have always been brown, or if you are only brown on purpose. Another way of finding out which class you belong to is by where you sleep. If you wake up in the night and can a) see the sky, or b) smell another person, you are probably not an aristocrat. (Chanel no. 5 does not count.) If you are afraid of other people less often than other people are afraid of you, you are probably either an aristocrat or a violent criminal; there is a distinct overlap between these two groups. If people you are speaking to do as they’re told immediately and apologetically and you are not holding a gun then you are probably an aristocrat. Aristocrats are tall from years of careful breeding, not from necessity. They smell nice because their clothes are freshly laundered every night while they sleep, as if by elves, but actually by peasants. Aristocrats spend more on fragrant shampoos than peasants spend on food, and why not if they have the money? There are roses in the cheeks of the aristocracy from eating free-range organic fruits and vegetables that have more rights and liberties than the peasants who harvest them; the red in the cheeks of the peasantry comes mostly from rubbing the dirt off for the aristocrat craning out of his Range Rover to take his picture.

Say hello to a more picturesque life, whether you are on the clear-browed, expensively-shod, idle-houred, poetry-scribbling side of the equation or the bending-over, defecating-out-in-the-open, rag-tag side. If you are on the peasant side rest-assured you will have lots of new friends to celebrate with. And another thing (as if being picturesque weren’t enough): good authority has it that you will inherit the earth just as soon as we are done with it.

Copyright Pasquino 2005

Thursday, April 07, 2005

From The Archives: Homage to a Press Secretary

The young, sharply attired, bald man moves briskly to the podium. His face is smart and brimful of confidence. He begins, without preamble, without sizing up the room. He knows everybody. He has their measure. Their names are down in his seating chart: the smart girls and the boys who think they are smart; they all think they know everything, but the rules are different now. A new broom has entered the Capital. The guard has changed. He begins, and everybody listens, admiring the spank of his diction, the jut of his jaw.

"I have some changes to announce. And some reminders. (He smiles) Even in these dark days, our White House should be a happy place, and it is our White House. It belongs to us now. WE are in control. Never forget that. If the White House is not happy, we are not happy.

(Did he mean us/them or us/us? He didn’t say.)

"In “our” House. . . there are a few rules that some people need to be reminded of.

(He looks over the top of his glasses; several grown men quail. He meant us/them.)

"Rule one. People will raise their hands in our White House. People will speak when they are called upon and not before. When they are called upon they will stand up next to their little chair. They will say “please” and “thank-you”. “Thank-you, Mr. President. How are you Mr. President? You sure are looking fit, Mr. President. Are you having a nice day, Mr. President? How is the First Lady, Mr. President? Nice tie, Mr. President; was it a gift?” All appropriate questions. You know the drill.
And no slouching. This is America’s house.

"We are always polite in America’s House. We do not speak out of turn. There is no need to shout, the President isn’t hard of hearing. There will be no sniggering or making faces in the back rows.

"Try to think of it-- even if you are a heathen, as most reporters are—-try to think of it as being in Church. This is a kind of Church, after all: America’s Church; and where the President stands is like the pulpit. Think of his words as you would think of the word of God. It isn’t polite to ask God to explain Himself. (Where did Cain’s wife come from? None of your business.)

If something seems confusing to you, imagine how he must feel. Or maybe the President is talking over your head. Did you ever think of that, Roger? I don’t see anybody else scratching their head. Are you sub-par in the mental department? I wouldn’t advertise it if I were you. If you don’t understand something, that really is your problem, don’t you think?

Don’t bother the rest of us with a follow-up. When the President has spoken he has spoken. Our time is valuable. The important thing is to believe at all times and with all your heart and soul. Clench your little fists together and close your eyes and believe and hope and wish as hard as you can that the President knows what He is doing, and He knows best, whether you understand it or not.

"Don’t contradict. Don’t point out contradictions because there aren’t any. There wouldn’t be, would there? It is a non-issue. How can you make a big issue out of something that doesn’t even exist? People should maybe be asking questions about you, Robert. Did you bathe this morning? What is that smell? Are your shoes untied? Is your job safe? What’s your credit card balance? Have you ever been arrested on a morals charge? Are you so perfect? We don’t have a problem up here. Maybe you are the one with the problem. Everything is in hand. Everything is under control. We know best. We know everything. We have our finger on the pulse of the nation. We hold the whole world in our hands.

"Our President is terribly, wonderfully brave. Did you see him walk across the lawn from the helicopter this morning? He has very good posture, shoulders back, head straight, firm, strong, muscular steps, masculine, clear-eyed. His face is chiseled out of the same stone as Mount Rushmore. He looks very brave and determined. Is it your plan to undermine that? Is that your job? Is that a very American thing to do? Is that why Americans fought and died on Omaha Beach so you can ask snide questions of the President? Every day we should get out of bed and get down on our knees and thank our lucky stars that we have such a specimen of American manhood to lead us. I do. So why are you so determined to make him cry?

"One question is all you get. One question and my suggestion is you make it a nice question because if it isn’t nice everybody will hate you. “Where do you buy your shoes, Mr. President?” Fair question. See? Was that so hard? ...I’m sorry? What did you say, Phil? ...“Do you use the same Italian shoemaker who makes shoes for Saddam Hussein?” Why did you have to spoil it? I am sure Mr. Hussein has to buy shoes somewhere and from someone. What a coincidence! And how clever of you to dig it up! Ha, ha! Very funny. Small jokes and sarcasm have no place in the People’s House. This house belongs to America. Do you have a problem with America? Are you making fun of America? Did your parents come to America from somewhere else? We could arrange for you to go back there if you’re not careful. One phone call. Not so cocky now are we?

"There will be no questions on the following subjects: Enron, energy companies of any kind, the word “trifecta”, the whereabouts or private agenda of the Vice President, the Presidential daughters, poor people, the Oval Office I.Q. chart found in the Press Men’s Room, pretzels, tennis player John Newcombe’s unpublished memoir, the State of Florida, the Supreme Court, anything read in Harper’s, anything about books The President hasn’t read, anything having to do with Martin Sheen, or the President’s father or any of his father’s friends. There is such a thing as common civility and we intend to observe it in this Press Room. Who threw that? I know somebody threw that. Who was it? Don’t play innocent with me. Who laughed? Does everyone want to stay here after the briefing?

"Job One of every White House reporter is to make sure the President’s message is delivered to the American People. His message, not his exact words. I don’t think that anyone found it funny when Howard wrote up last week’s answers verbatim and put it out on the wire. It just made Howard look foolish. Mrs. Bush was up half the night comforting the President, he was that upset. Did it make you a big man to hurt the President’s feelings like that? Do I make fun of the way you talk? Lots of people get the words “lucrative” and “ludicrous” mixed up and nobody likes having it pointed out by some smartypants who went to journalism school. Spell “propinquity”, Howard. Go ahead. Not so smart now, are you? How old were you when you licked that bedwetting problem? Let’s move on.

"Brad has a question. . . .O.K. Fair enough. If there is a rule of thumb I think it might be this. The President loves baseball. Imagine you are playing baseball and you are at the plate. How would you feel if the pitcher started throwing junk at you, lowball stuff, brushbacks, tricky curveballs, spitters, and really hard fastballs that would hurt a lot if they hit you in the arm? You’d be pretty angry. You might want to shout “Not fair!” --but you wouldn’t. Why? Because you’d feel like a sissy. Do you want the President to feel like a sissy? Suppose he has to put on his thinking cap the next day and make a decision? Suppose he is learning some really hard stuff for a meeting with a really important foreign leader who went to college? Do you want him being upset and angry and lacking in confidence or maybe not even sleeping all night? Play fair. Be nice. Play nice. When you’re up to bat, you want the pitches to come in over the plate, clean and chest high, nice and easy. Nobody likes to disgrace themselves in front of national television. The President is just like you. Give him nice pitches that he can see and he may surprise you by hitting one out of the infield. America wants the President to succeed. They don’t want him to look like a moron in front of everybody. And the last thing the American public wants is to feel like a chump for voting for him.

"Who said that? . . .Very funny, Norman.

"Most important, and I cannot stress this enough, in the interests of National Security in this time of War there will be no math questions of any kind. No questions that require knowledge about foreign countries. No tricky pronunciations. No story problems. No trick questions. Surprise is the weapon of the Enemy. The Press cannot be allowed to question the command qualities of the Commander In Chief. To this end, to ensure compliance for the duration of the present conflict, you will receive clearly typed booklets of questions each morning. They will be waiting for you on your seats. You will be expected to learn them. When your turn comes, and you are called upon, you will read the question highlighted in your book as written. Deviations will be dealt with swiftly and without mercy. Those reporters who play ball will receive pre-printed transcripts of the press conference in a keepsake leatherette binding with the Presidential Seal on the cover and a souvenir fountain pen. Reporters in good standing will have the opportunity to make their broadcast reports from the verandah and put their name in for one-on-one chats with the President at Camp David.

"The President is a delicate and a lovely thing. Cherish him. Love him. Protect him. You are his Press Corps. You hold his trembling, fragile self-confidence in your hands. With gentle care it will grow and grow, and as he grows in office so will his kindness towards you all. I believe even you can comprehend the significance of what I am saying. We need you people to play ball. All right, gentlemen, ladies, I believe the President is ready for your questions..."

copyright Pasquino 2002