As the holiday season approaches, I think back to my childhood and the times enjoyed with my family. We were lucky. My immigrant parents realized the American Dream, and on the fourth Thursday of every November we had much to be thankful for. Even if my dad sometimes wasn’t there because he had to work, we didn’t mind. As a doctor, he and his fellow health care professionals knew that sickness takes no holiday. Policemen and firemen, plumbers and 911 operators: all kinds of Americans know well the sacrifices and pride that comes with providing essential services.
But while the right to one’s health and safety may be inalienable, the right to shop is not. Yet Wal-Mart recently announced that it would open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day; Target and Toys R Us followed suit, with plans to open at 9 p.m. They are hardly alone. The Gap Stores (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic) will be open Thanksgiving Day, as will Sears and Kmart. Shoppers may appreciate the extra hours, but what about all the people who will have to end their Thanksgiving meal, or forgo it altogether, in order to man the cashiers and stock the shelves?
It used to be we had a deal. Professionals ran society for the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie rewarded them handsomely for it. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists, professors: all of them had a lot of prestige, a lot of autonomy, and in the first three cases, some very nice incomes, as well. At a lower level—decent compensation if not munificent, respect if not esteem—were teachers, nurses, clergymen, social workers. Professionals were key to keeping the system going, and in particular, to tending to people’s individual needs.
The most privileged ministered to the upper classes themselves—a lot of lawyers in this category, a fair number of high-end surgeons and specialists in fancy private practices, a few Episcopal priests and Ivy League professors—while the rest were assigned the far less pleasant task of looking after everybody else. Another way to put it is that a lot of lower-level professionals—think of public school teachers, nurses in the big hospitals, almost every social worker, community college professors, the most selfless of the doctors and lawyers, and throw in the members of the public employee unions (cops, prison guards, civil servants)—were in the business, are in the business, of human waste management.