Don’t you love synchronicity? God places different things in our path at the same time so that we can view them together. The recent headline, “Workplace Injuries Down” coincided with my reading a fascinating book. In the early 1970’s Jan Wong was a nineteen year old Canadian student of Chinese descent. Like so many of her peers she viewed the western culture in which she was brought up as decadent and evil, while the communist/socialist vision represented happiness and prosperity for all. Unlike her peers, she had a chance to move to Communist China and attend school there.
In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, and its sequel, A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir, she writes with candor and brave self-examination of her experiences. Ever so slowly, her naive belief in Mao and the system crumbled, as she came face to face with the reality behind the propaganda.
She writes, “I noted in my journal that the skies were a startling azure, but it didn’t occur to me that the lack of pollution was due to lagging industrial production. As I biked down car-free streets, I thought happily that China had chosen the right path for development. I didn’t think about how the very old, the very young, the handicapped, the sick, not to mention entire families, got around the vast city. Everyone glowed with health. China resembled a Colorado health spa. There was the same low-cholesterol vegetarian diet, known as meat rationing. There was the same early-to-bed regimen, known as power outages. And instead of working out with a personal trainer, the Chinese just plain worked. The only difference was you could never check out.”
I had to laugh (though it wasn’t funny) when the same day as I read that paragraph, I also saw the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that workplace injuries fell by 17% last year. At least reporters openly acknowledged that injuries were down because of unemployment. Since fewer people were working, there were fewer opportunities to get hurt.
Imagine the utopia of no workplace injuries, no car accidents, and no mass salmonella outbreaks. We could achieve that. All we would need to do would be to shut all workplaces, close down the food industry requiring every family to eat from its own back yard or window garden, and ban cars.
One of the greatest Jewish rabbis of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, told his students that people should keep two pieces of paper in their pockets. On one should be written, “For me the world was created,” and on the other, “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Two opposing views; both true. It takes a great deal of maturity to integrate them and live with both those ideas constantly in the forefront of one’s mind.
Similarly, it takes a great deal of maturity to accept that trying to eliminate all risk eliminates life. A nineteen year old might be excused for shallow thinking, though he or she can do great damage at the ballot box. But those of us older than that need to know that the government that acts on its promise to deliver total security, safety and equality can only deliver an unsafe, subsistence level existence equally to all (well, those in power would do unequally well).
When Labor Secretary Hilda Solis responded to the Bureau of Labor report by saying, “A single worker hurt or killed on the job is one too many…,” she joins a long list of statements by politicians of both parties that sound good and are ridiculous. At one and the same time, the government should care about workplace safety and also know that complete workplace safety comes at the cost of shutting down all workplaces. I doubt whether the Americans out of work, who may well be facing increased depression and illness for lack of having a paycheck, feel better hearing that the administration wants to reduce workplace injuries even more.