First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. — Martin Niemoller
Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I attended an Aspen Institute event for government officials and "businessmen" of the new Russia. At night, we went drinking, me tagging along with the legendary foreign editor of the Rocky Mountain News, Holger Jensen (imagine when great metro newspapers had such assets). Over copious amounts of vodka, caviar and smoked salmon, a Russian told this joke: The devil came for three souls, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian. He told each he could have one day to enjoy his greatest earthly pleasure before being taken to perdition. The Englishman chose to walk the grounds of his estate, trailed by his loyal hound, reading Byron and Keats. The Frenchman, naturally, decided to spend a day in enchanting debauchery with his mistress, Madeleine. "And what about you?" the devil asked the Russian. "What would give you the greatest pleasure?" Without hesitation, the Russian replied: "Watching my neighbor's barn burn down."
I once told this story and added, "well, you had to be there." No more. If nothing else, the vicious attack on public employees and their unions illustrates that many Americans have achieved a special Slavic level of desolate envy and hatred. As the character says in the film, Moscow on the Hudson, "I love my misery..." This is on display in Madison, Wis., where unionized government workers are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights, even as they try to compromise and give back on pensions. Yet polls show most Americans hate unions (although a new one indicates they support collective bargaining rights). Short-attention-span America can't recall a time when collective bargaining, unions, pensions and health-care benefits for workers and retirees were standard in this country. Purchased with union blood, they became the baseline for all workers, unionized or not. Now, as Americans get screwed with their 401(k)s, they either don't remember, or simply hate the workers who still enjoy these foundations of the middle class.