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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Various Translations of the Simple Plea, "Please Don't Hurt Us"

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, writing a message on a city street. What is he trying to say?

The parable of the shopkeep who placed a "Workers of the World, Unite!" sign in his window was published in 1978, after its author, Vaclav Havel, living in communist Czechoslovakia, was arrested. Zbygniew Bujak, a Solidarity activist, said that Havel's essay, which contained the parable, "maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later--in August 1980--it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered."

From “The Power of the Powerless,” by Vaclav Havel:
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Some immigrant and minority shopkeeps can't afford all that yellow paint. So they have to improvise:

Photo by Michael Tracey

 I am afraid that will not do. Pieties must be observed. The correct words and ceremonies must be invoked. Milan Kundera, another Czech writer, described this in his novel The Joke:
He said there were two great opposing institutions involved: the Catholic Church with its traditional thousand-year-old rites and the civil institutions that must supplant the thousand-year-old rites with their own. He said that people would stop going to church to have their children christened or to get married only when our civil ceremonies had as much dignity and beauty as the church ceremonies.

I asked my old classmate what he did with people who didn't want to take part in his ceremonies, whether there were any such people. He said of course there were, since not everybody had come round to the new way of thinking yet, but if they didn't attend, they kept receiving invitations, and most of them came in sooner or later, after a week or two. I asked him whether attendance at such ceremonies was compulsory. He replied with a smile that it wasn't, but that the National Committee used attendance as a touchstone for evaluating people's sense of citizenship and their attitude towards the State, and in the end people realized that and came.

In that case, I said, the National Committee was stricter with its believers than the Church was with theirs. Kovalik smiled and said that could not be helped.
Now you begin to see the problem. We have class solidarity, and gay marriage solidarity, and now of course LGBTQ+∞ solidarity, Black Lives Matter solidarity, climate solidarity. Why, the poor shopkeep's store will be utterly obscured behind all these signs!

The needful thing is an All-Purpose Solidarity Sign. I have fashioned a prototype, but some enterprising lefty signmaker is going to need to meet me halfway here.

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