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


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