Toronto In American public and political life there used to be some clear tests that determined whether you were “one of us” or “one of them,” whether you were progressive or conservative, stood with the people or stood with special interests. These markers were so stark and clear that a generation ago it would have been heresy to cross the line. It would have been a breach of public trust and signal of the fact that you were unfit to stand for public office.
One of the clearest examples was in the car you drove. Whether favor seeker or politician you knew not to drive into a union parking lot in a foreign made car. It didn’t have to be a poser’s pickup. It could be a big Lincoln or a stretched Cadillac, but it had to be from the Big-3 and built by union labor if you wanted something from a union.
If you were looking for an endorsement as a politician or an alliance with a union, you didn’t offer them a newspaper for your organization, a bumper sticker for your campaign, or a business card that lacked a union “bug” at the bottom. You could guarantee that there was some old member in the back who might not care what you said about any issue but was sure to raise the fact that you lacked a bug even if the Typographical Union was one of the smallest in the labor movement. It was a signifier of where you stood, and really who you were. It was a simple sign of respect like not spitting on the floor or wiping your nose with your sleeve. It was something so simple and obvious that it spoke volumes if these small signs were not clear.
The same was always true about whether or not you and your children attended public school. In a city like New Orleans you could get away with going to Jesuit High School, if you were Marc Morial and son of the Mayor, because it was a Catholic city and you were showing you could make it anywhere. That did not disqualify you from running for Mayor, but it surely disqualified you from running for the school board if you or your children didn’t go to public school. Everyone knew this. You had no “skin in the game.” You were simply an dilettante, an window gazer, and an on looker in the process, and best to keep your pie hole shut and opinions to yourself. I can remember in Little Rock when candidates withdrew from elections because their children were not in public school. This was a city where the integration of the public schools in 1957 was a national crisis, so to say you wanted to govern schools when your own children were not in them was anathema and a obvious disqualification.
For decades, the decisions of Presidents about where their children would go to school in Washington, public or private, was widely reported in the news. Unfortunately, the Democratic trend towards Sidwell Quakers’ school has diluted the clarity of the politics behind a smokescreen of security, but it still means something and disappoints when Presidents speaking about education, line their children up on the playground with the 1% rather than the rest of us.
The loss of embarrassment and the sense of irony in modern political life when public figures fail to grasp this is shocking. They seem to speed through the red lights now without stopping, but they would be very, very foolish to think that it is not noticed and resented by citizens and regular people.
A paragraph in the New York Times discussing a Chicago mother scrambling to take care of her children in the sudden forced teachers’ strike was telling:
“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get, an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.
There was a day when it would have been so obvious to someone as savvy and shrewd as Rahm Emmanuel that it would have been as natural to him as taking a breath of air or reading the morning paper to either have his children in public school or stay out of the debate. When the sense of entitlement becomes a “given” to public officials and the protection of inequities without even irony or embarrassment becomes natural rather than taboo, then the changes in our public life are out of hand. When teachers in Chicago say the strike speaks to a lack of “respect,” just as driving a foreign car once did or using a scab printer or similar affronts to standardized symbols about where you stand and who you stand with, this is what they are speaking in a voice louder than any bullhorn and clearer than any picket sign.