“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...” says Marc Antony in the opening of Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. We know that Marc Antony was playing fast and loose with the facts when he spoke those words at Caesar's funeral, but what I'm thinking about right now is how our own leaders refer to us. “Taxpayers, consumers, customers, lend me your ears...” is how a modern American president might begin a speech. In our case, we might not get the metaphor for listening; we might think the rascal really wants our ears!
I have learned to pay close attention to what our leaders call us because it reflects how they see us. How nice when Lyndon Johnson called us “My fellow Americans,” although that proved small comfort when we experienced what was so naively called “the Credibility Gap.” I was vaguely concerned in the 70s when I began to hear us referred to as taxpayers, rather than citizens, or residents or even neighbors, because it made me feel like a mark, not my name but the target of a scam. If I look again to English literature for a metaphor, the Sheriff of Nottingham comes to mind, seeing his neighbors as a sponge of sorts, from which to squeeze the last drop of money for the king. I liked citizen better, because I believe it refers to our rights and privileges under our government, rather than to our obligation to give them money. We are, after all, supposed to be the owners of this leaky ship of state, not simply the fuel that keeps it floundering about the world.
On the local level, it seems to me that taxpayer is a more reasonable designation, since the budget is the only aspect of our government we have any control over, and then it's only yea or nay. Sometimes, I feel like the budget vote is the only time I ever get to say – in a way that is heard – how my town should be run. Free speech, the right to comment on how things are going, is one thing, but the right to vote yes or no, and to know that the majority will carry the day, is quite another. Voting on the budget is pretty thin gruel where democracy is concerned, but then again, it is increasingly true that our governments on all levels only speak the language of finance.
What we would need to have democracy, is conversation; we need to listen to each other before making some collective decisions about our fate as a nation. With that need for conversation in mind, I am thinking of how Soviet leaders – at least in the popular view – referred to each other and their fellow citizens as Comrade. In my mind, Comrade is a lot more conducive to conversations about democracy and equality than, oh say, customer.
I was appalled when George W. Bush and Rudolph Giuliani referred to us as “their American Consumers,” after the World Trade Towers were destroyed. And they put a fine point on the designation when they told us not to be afraid, but to go shopping. You see, like taxpayers, consumers are a source of revenue for our government. I am not speaking now of the tax on our purchases, but of the many corporations who sell us things and, more important, they also underwrite those who would become our leaders. Just as when they call us taxpayers, they are only interested in our money when they call us consumers they are seeing us as assets, whose money they can corral for their corporate sponsors. Their patrons need us to consume more and more, even as our planet and our cultures need us to consume less.
Most shockingly, I read a comment by Donald Trump the other day, in which he referred to us as “customers.” This brings me to mind of the struggle being waged in our country over the privatization of the functions of our government: schools, prisons, the Social Security system, including Medicare. When they think of us as customers, we should remember the term “caveat emptor.” The thing about the corporations that sell us goods and services, is that they are only interested in making money, and when they have us locked in, they won't care whether we're satisfied. When our government gives away more and more of its functions as monopolies to corporations, those companies have less and less reason to care about our satisfaction.
What's in a name? Plenty! I know I am unlikely to trust anyone who calls me or my fellow citizens “consumers,” or, worse still, “customers.” I think I will not really be satisfied until a candidate calls me “comrade,” or some other term that speaks of equality, respect and our shared mission as a nation of people, with desires, needs and responsibilities to each other.