The New Villains

How did teachers and firefighters turn into the bad guys?

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For years, I’ve seen Clark County firefighters working out at my gym. They wear blue T-shirts identifying themselves as such, and they park the fire engine right outside. I like it. I figure if I have a heart attack on the elliptical machine, my odds are pretty good. Plus, there’s something Americana-ish about seeing a firefighter do curls while his two-way radio chirps. Or when he has to drop what he’s doing to answer a call for his unit. It fulfills a cliché that we created because it comforts us: strong and ready. That’s nauseatingly Rockwellian, but true.

I feel the same way about teachers—I give them “like” status because I know from my own experience that they can, at their best, play a pivotal role in a child’s life. That alone is worth betting on. But just by keeping up the daily grind in classrooms, they mete out the essential tools we need to build our lives.

But somehow in this season of economic finger-pointing, we’ve decided to vilify these professions—ironically, two of the few that hold some nonmonetary value to us. In popular discourse, firefighters have become overpaid bureaucrats and teachers lazy parasites, both abusing the public dole.

Conveniently, some failures make such rhetoric, aimed ultimately at unions, an easy sell right now. Clark County firefighters have been in trouble for months because a large minority of them abused sick-leave and vacation pay rules, racking up bonuses on top of six-figure salaries in the most egregious cases. And since the start of the recession, firefighters have been fiercely protective of their salaries and benefits even as hundreds of city workers have faced pay cuts or layoffs.

Meanwhile, teachers, both here and nationwide, are losing their traditional shine. This is partly because so many of our kids test as dolts or never make it to graduation, but it’s also simply because teachers are part of a system that costs a lot of public money. That’s compounded by the tenure system, in which the teachers most recently hired are generally the first fired in budget cuts, regardless of merit.

In both cases, public scrutiny for public dollars is warranted. However, neither teachers nor firefighters, nor their unions, got us into the ongoing financial debacle. It’s as if we’ve conceded that we couldn’t grab the greasy pigs of high finance and politics who are most responsible for the blight we’re in, so we settled for self-immolation: destroying the last vestiges of professional archetypes we held dear—the people who teach our children all day and those we call for help in the middle of the night.

It’s hard to put a face on Goldman Sachs. But the firefighter who’s working out at my gym and getting paid six figures to do so? He and all of his compatriots are an easy mark. It’s difficult to figure out why your kids have zero attention span—but the tenured teacher? Sucking from the system.

I try to remember that those simplistic images are less factual than the result of a staggering rhetorical victory for the propagandists of private capital, the natural progression of a pendulum swing away from the public sphere that began in the late 1970s. It’s a cultural backlash that channels ignorance into hatred for “government workers” generally, as if we are afraid or unable to pick apart the complexities of the free market, which coddles the real cheats of our time.

It’s almost comical, if it weren’t so tragic, to demonize working-class public servants in the aftermath of such a long stretch of the financial industry’s most atrocious crimes. Look around at the (still there!) foreclosed homes, the unavailable credit, the halted construction.

It’s not that we should give all firefighters and teachers or public employees a blanket pass, or lionize them beyond reproach. America has a cherished tradition of whipping the curtains off of Oz. But we’ve got the wrong Oz. While there are some problems with public employee unions, no doubt, there aren’t enough to hold them accountable for, say, the recession, the budget crisis and the fall of the American middle class. As we ferret out problems like last-in, first-out tenure, we need to reject the generalizations: firefighters are stealing public money; teachers only care about their job security.

And more importantly, we need to hold dear the civil servant roles that we, as a community, have always valued for a reason. The near-Rockwellian archetypes exist not just because teachers and firefighters generally perform incredible work. They are there because we want that duty to be revered, whoever holds the job.