Context is everything

Submitted for your consideration: a new television offering.

“The Chair” is a dramedy – part drama, part comedy – on Netflix starring Sandra Oh as the first woman chair of the English Department at a small liberal arts college.

On opening day of classes, a  student video’d a professor’s class intro, in which he wrote “Absurdism” and “Fascism” on the chalkboard, then rendered the “Nazi salute” and launched into the efforts of two people who tried to find a reason for being on the planet when the only choices seemed between “government knows best” and “no one knows anything.”

The student with the smartphone cut the video so the only scene was the professor making the salute, thus eliminating all context, and sent it to all students. Add in that as the professor was walking along the road on the way to work one morning, a young woman student came along, offered him a ride. He accepted.

What follows is, of course, the theme of the story, so I will not spoil the outcome.

The show reminded me of a thread earlier in the week on Facebook in which someone noticed a painting hanging in the Gettysburg Hospital Emergency Department. It depicts three women, bent over, picking in a field. What they are picking is unclear, though some research reveals the artist, Jean-Francois Millet, had a thing about peasants the way some folks have a thing about working folks or the environment. He painted the picture in 1857, of French peasants “gleaning” leftover scraps after the harvest was done.

Some participants in the conversation thought the picture was about American slavery, its depiction likely hurtful to descendants of American slaves.  Eventually, the image was slated for removal, at least from areas the primary goal of which was healing ill bodies.

Slavery, though not a uniquely American sin, has to be hurtful to those descended from its chains. But if we are to heal the pain, we will not do that by sweeping its depiction out of sight.

For the painting was about not only 19th CenturyFrench peasants. It was, instead, about generations of workers at the bottom of the economic food chain.

They are the so-called frontline workers in the fight against Covid, stocking grocery shelves, answering the call for “Cleanup on Aisle 12.”

They are the single moms and dads who work in jobs that pay just well enough to buy gas to go to work to make enough money to buy gas to … rinse and repeat.

They are the volunteer emergency medical responders and firefighters, the trash collectors who collect the detritus of our lives and make it disappear, the wait staff who take our order and clean up after we have enjoyed dinner and the servants who clean motel rooms and install fresh sheets for our overnight travel break.

They are all those who for little or no pay keep our lives from being overrun with trivial bothers that become not so trivial when those people become sick or disabled.

Racism is, or should be, the banner of our march toward “freedom and justice for all” those who are slaves to an economic system that fails to acknowledge the contribution of the worker to the wealth of the employer.

Former Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson is quoted thus: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

It’s about context.

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