Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Window Washing

One of the most boring ceremonies ever invented by the U.S. Navy is the Change of Command, in which one unit commander, the incoming one, is "piped aboard" by a boatswain's mate and the outgoing commander is "piped ashore," and in between the assembled sailors belonging to the unit stand in ranks at attention or at "parade rest" for the duration - which can be hours.

My last unit was stationed not aboard a ship but ashore on the Japanese island of Okinawa - a small admiral's staff consisting of about fifty officers and enlisted. Despite the fact that we had no dining facility, there were three Mess Specialists (cooks) assigned to the unit to serve the admiral and chief of staff on the rare occasions when we embarked on a ship.

For the change of command ceremony, held inside of an empty warehouse set aside for the occasion, these Mess Specialists, a Senior Chief Petty Officer and two seamen, were employed setting up tables and, because there was a formal dinner afterwards for the officers, arranging all the place settings. Since it was a Saturday and there were only three of them, they were at work late into the afternoon. At one point, probably resentful that he was obliged to work on a Saturday (yes, we had weekends off ashore in the Navy), one of the seamen began to complain.

"I ain't nothin' but a slave," he said. The Senior Chief, who was a Filipino, told him to "stop using that word."

"What word, Senior Chief?" the seaman (who was black) asked. "You mean 'slave'?"

"Yes," the Senior Chief replied. "Stop using that word."

"Don't you tell me I can't use that word," the seaman argued. "That's my word! I'll say it as many times as I want. Slave slave slave slave slave!"

I was reminded of this anecdote when I read in The Atlantic about Corey Menafee, a dishwasher at Yale Uniersity's Calhoun College dining hall. Last June 13, having worked at Calhoun for nine years, Menafee quietly climbed a ladder and shattered a stained-glass window that had been staring down at him all the time the 38-year-old had been working there. The scene that the offending stained glass window depicted included the figures of two slaves, a man and a woman, who were balancing bales of cotton on their heads. The college was named for John C. Calhoun, who is lately remembered as an outspoken proponent of slavery.

In April 2015, Yale president Peter Salovey answered requests from student activists to remove some of Calhoun College's more politically questionable monuments to a museum, not to obscure the facts of the College's history but to restore the monuments to their historical context, i.e., the distant past.

Menafee told the New Haven Independent that he found the particular image of black slaves "racist, very degrading." Asked if he knew about John C. Calhoun, Menafee said, "When I walked into this job, I wasn't aware of none of that. And then, you know, being there, you start hearing different things. I took a broomstick, and it was kind of high, and I climbed up and reached up and broke it. It's 2016, I shouldn't have to come to work and see things like that."

Menafee performed his act of "civil disobedience" (his words) not after hours when no one was watching, but in front of a room full of dining students. He then went to a rest room and shaved, making himself presentable for when "the authorities" arrived. He was taken away by police in handcuffs.

Menafee later apologized and "resigned" from his job. On July 14, Yale announced that it was not pursuing charges against Menafee and were not seeking any financial restitution.

The trouble with this story - as reported - is that it doesn't really add up. Clearly, there must have been something that set Menafee off, something unusual. If not, why did it take him nine years to make up his mind to carry out his act of destruction? (It doesn't really qualify as civil disobedience, unless Menafee had been a window washer, dutifully cleaning and clarifying an offensive image.) Having worked as a dishwasher once, for only a few weeks, I have nothing but respect for someone who could do it for nine years. There was no mention of how much Yale University pays a dishwasher, but it was enough to keep Mr. Menafee gainfully employed for nine years and enough to make him want to come back, if the university trusts him around windows.

The Atlantic article concluded with the folowing subtly-worded paragraph:

"For the past year, student activists at Yale have campaigned for the university to change the name of Calhoun College because of its links to slavery. But in April, Yale said it would keep the name. The former vice president and former student of Yale once said of slavery: 'I hold, then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.'"

Even at the height of its democracy, Ancient Greece had a sizeable population of slaves. How could the same men who invented democracy and philosphy, who gave us Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, have found a way to justify slavery? Certainly it wasn't enough for them to argue that every other preceding and contemporary civilization had slaves, so why can't we? They practiced self-rule, the principle of one man, one vote, and not some form of autocratic tyranny practiced by their neighbors. In one of his essays collected in The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden reasoned that “In accepting and defending the social institution of slavery, the Greeks were harder-hearted than we but clearer-headed; they knew that labor as such is slavery, and that no man can feel a personal pride in being a laborer. A man can be proud of being a worker – someone, that is, who fabricates enduring objects, but in our society, the process of fabrication has been so rationalized in the interests of speed, economy and quantity that the part played by the individual factory employee has become too small for it to be meaningful to him as work, and practically all workers have been reduced to laborers."

In the quotation cited by The Atlantic, John C. Calhoun was correct, even if his use of human history to justify an inhuman injustice was opportunistic. While history has certainly judged him for his defense of slavery, it has proved his thesis. Call it slavery or call it gainful employment, every society values some forms of labor over others. Even if you were to inform the average American that the starting pay for a garbage collector in many American cities is higher than that of a teacher, he might try to argue that garbage collection is more important than teaching. And that admission alone would tell you everything you need to know about what's wrong with America.

George Orwell said of dishwashing that "Like sweeping, scrubbing and dusting, it is of its nature an uncreative and life-wasting job."(2) It is one of those tasks that should be - and eventually will be - done by robots. We can then justify our enslavement of machines however we wish, as long as we never forget our enslavement of one another.


(1) "A Shattering Act of Civil Disobedience," by J. Weston Phippen, The Atlantic, July 14, 2016.
(2) "As I Please," Tribune, 9 February 1945.

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