(From the Marx Bros., "Cocoanuts")
Hammer [Groucho Marx]: ... Now here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Why a duck?
Hammer: I'm all right. How are you? I say here is a little peninsula, and here's a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: All right. Why a duck?
Hammer: I'm not playing Ask-Me-Another. I say, that's a viaduct.
Chico: All right. Why a duck? Why a--- why a duck? Why-a-no-chicken?
Hammer: I don't know why-a-no-chicken. I'm a stranger here myself. All I know is that it's a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken, and you'll find out why a duck. It's deep water, that's viaduct.
Lots of people argue about politics; in fact, arguing about politics is one of the great pleasures, if you can call it that, of American life and has been since the founding of the Republic. Very few people other than academics, though, actually argue about the political philosophies that underlie those arguments; most people prefer to concentrate instead on the day to day maneuvering and staged news events that constitute the foam on the surface of the political sea. I think more people would talk about political philosophy if someone kept the academics out of the discussion altogether, since most of them are fairly liberal, if not actual left wingers of one sort or another; professors are, as a rule, annoying the way your neighbor’s kids are annoying, which is too say all the damn time and never more so than when they let that damn dog of theirs wander around the neighborhood peeing on your mother’s azaleas, but that’s another story; and left wingers, like any other insecure religious believer, like to shout down anyone who disagrees with them. This makes them disagreeable to be with on the whole, especially if they are Marxists, since they may mistake you for an oppressed proletarian and try some brand new lines of agitprop on you to gauge their overall effectiveness, hoping to stir some good old fashioned revolutionary class struggle with a pernicious but otherwise fairly harmless kulak counter-revolutionary capitalist running dog like your local Korean fruit stand owner before they go home to the suburbs and eat some vegan quiche for supper.
I bring this up because one of my co-workers, a graduate student who wants to work with children after she gets her masters degree, for reasons that elude me at the moment (you can skip the next bit if you want and start up with and I; you won’t miss anything important); the concept of willingly working with children always reminds me of great souls like Father Damien or Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, living saints who spend their lives working with lepers or condemned prisoners or advertising executives; you’re happy that someone works on behalf of these poor unfortunate wretches, and you’re equally happy, if not even more so, that the someone who works with them isn’t you; and I (welcome back to the main part of the sentence; the weather here is fine, sunny and high in the low 70’s with a chance of showers later tonight) found ourselves talking about Marxism for some reason. We discussed the great dogmas of that great secular faith: dialectical materialism, the surplus value of labor, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class struggle and the inevitable triumph of the workers, religion as the opiate of the masses, and then she posed a question about the central tenet of the Marxist faith. She was skeptical of many Marxist claims, and one may say that in the light of recent history she has every right to be skeptical, and she wondered aloud if anyone had ever done a systematic and scientific examination of the factors involved in the Marxist conundrum of why a duck?
Indeed, one may well ask why a duck and not some other species of waterfowl? The question of why a duck is an old one, as I am sure you know, predating the existence of Marxism by at least a millennium. In the Middle Ages, schools of philosophy contended bitterly over the question, with angry mobs of students coming constantly to blows in the streets of Paris and Bologna and cheese with mustard, with many a university suspended from competition for years because of irregularities in recruiting star philosophers. The medieval nominalists held that only the individual duck existed, that ducks as a class merely reflected the individual duck down to the webbed feet, the quack, and the insatiable drive to sell supplemental health insurance. The medieval realists believed that ducks derived their inherent duckiness from their being part of the greater class of ducks and from owning a really cool motorcycle, which then, as now, was a babe magnet, and that the individuality of specific ducks was less important than the larger category of duck to which all ducks belonged...yeah, I know, this is all a bit much, but it was the Middle Ages, remember; there were no movies, no television, much less cable TV, no computer games or any computers to play them on. They had to do something to pass the time and arguing about whether ducks came by their identity through their individual characteristics or through their membership in the National Hockey League was a good way to kill a year or two. Remember how dumb you’re going to look to your descendants a thousand years from now and cut these people some slack, okay? Medieval peasants, to round out the argument, thought that both schools of thought had a good deal of merit, intellectually speaking, but most held to the opinion that no matter which school’s argument was the more valid, ducks still tasted pretty damn good when you could catch them, particularly if damp and moldy rye bread is all you’ve had to eat since you were a kid.
Marxists, as a rule, follow the realist approach to the question of why a duck. Such categories as class and duck, after all, are human constructs, after all, templates that are dishwasher safe and won’t break even if hurled at a wall by a happy Greek dancing to the theme music from Zorba the Greek at a wedding he's not paying for; free food does that to people sometimes. In any case, this reduction of ducks to a mere category, one of many, suits the philosophical bent of most Marxists, who seem to despise most species involved in the insurance business, but this aversion has little or nothing to do with the larger question of why a duck. The most popular answer of the twentieth century was I don’t know, I’m a stranger here myself, but I feel that in our more modern age we can safely say, without fear of contradiction, why the hell not a duck, and to say so with great confidence. Now why Marxists loathe the insurance business so much is another question entirely, and one beyond the scope of this essay, but the dislike appears real enough, based on the historical evidence of the past century. I find it hard to think of a twentieth century Marxist state where I’d feel comfortable selling life and property insurance, given the usual Marxist prejudices about life and property.