Which side of the wall of decency are you on?
What this country needs is not a border wall, but about 1 million yellow vests. It needs federal workers who will not work without pay. What this country needs, in short, is a bit of the spirit that animated French workers and brought them out in the streets, wearing the yellow safety vests found in most French cars. I'd say strike up "La Marseillaise," but this is America. The old union anthem "Which Side Are You On?" will do just fine.
At moments like this, I conjure my grandfather, an immigrant from the Polish shtetel. In one of the few pictures I have of him, he stands next to a friend later identified to me as a union organizer named Mendel Petrushnick. His name might have been spelled differently, but his cause was unquestioned: He was a champion of the worker.
Now those who work for the federal government are out of work, and not much is being done about it. I could not begin to explain this to my grandfather. I'd have to tell him that the workers are mere pawns in a fight between a Republican president and a Democratic House of Representatives and that they are not asking for more money or better working conditions. In fact, they are asking for nothing -- just to go back to work.
I cannot imagine telling my grandfather that the president is a paunchy plutocrat with orange skin and blondish hair, a billionaire with a mansion in Palm Beach, a triplex or something on Fifth Avenue and his own private jet. He is a caricature out of Thomas Nast, the 19th-century political cartoonist. Nast drew Boss Tweed, the head of the New York Democratic organization, with a huge belly and a head made of a sack with a dollar sign on it. That was investigative journalism at its best.
The idea that ordinary workers should miss as much as one payday for the sake of a political statement -- a mostly useless wall -- would be beyond my grandfather's comprehension -- as it is mine. Many of these people live from paycheck to paycheck. Never mind that they will someday get paid -- although contractors might not. In the meantime, they have financial obligations that must be met. It is the solemn obligation of their employer to pay them on time. The head of the government is a brat with a gold-plated sink in his jet whose idea of privation is flying commercial. What better symbol of unfairness can you get?
I do not suggest that federal workers follow the French example by taking to the streets and committing violent acts. I do suggest that Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, stop trudging to the White House to negotiate with Trump. Instead, they should take their case to the people and demand in the hallowed phrase of "a day's pay for a day's work" that the president pay his employees. They might even wonder out loud what if most -- not just some -- of Transportation Security Administration employees called in sick? After all, "no pay, no work" is not a radical slogan. Who cannot understand that?
Trump stumped for a wall, but even those close to him surely knew it was an idiotic idea. Right before the holidays, Congressional Republicans tried passing a short-term spending bill without wall funding. With that, his vultures of vitriol sprang into action. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh demanded to know if the president was a man or a mouse. A man, he squealed, and dug in his heels on the wall.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the wall "an immorality." She's essentially correct. It is the concrete (or steel) realization of anti-immigrant demagoguery. The intent is to keep out all those Mexican rapists and murderers of Trump's imagination. He flings statistics and numbers like confetti at a wedding, citing nonexistent terrorists and, in one case, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who fired a gun that killed a San Francisco woman by ricochet. Trump turned that into murder one. The trial jury, obligated to deal with just the facts, acquitted.
The national emergency that Trump threatens to declare is redundant: he already is one. The president is a tsunami of lies, snits, ferocious ignorance and malevolent thoughts. But he outdoes himself with this shutdown, depriving many thousands of their pay to satisfy a campaign boast. He has erected his own wall, one between decency and demagoguery. Which side are you on?
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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