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, 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.