Just below the trestle of the commuter railway that passes through my village is a large sign which displays public notices – local concerts, fundraisers, school tax voting date, etc.  The sign is centrally located and doubtless many residents pass by each day.  When there’s no event to publicize, village officials often post a message that reads “Keep the Village Clean”.  It is innocuous enough and no one to my knowledge has ever taken issue with it.  But I wondered the other day why “clean” instead of perhaps “green, or “serene” or “safe” or “moving ahead.”

What does “clean” mean?  There’s much history here.  Back in the late 19th Century, before the germ theory was accepted to explain the origin of disease, the United States went on a cleanliness binge.  Disease, experts declared, originated from “bad air”, i.e., the effluvia that were emitted by mounds of dirt and garbage, an unfortunate feature of the urban environment.  Clean these up and you defeat disease.  Thus, across the land officials organized systematic garbage collections, watered down the streets in summer, picked up animal waste and dead carcasses, disposed of garbage away from population centers and cleaned up the water consumed by the public.  And it worked.  The incidence of disease declined significantly even before we began regular inoculation campaigns.

But what else might “clean” represent?  Clearly it’s not been just a physical standard, but also a political statement (“clean house”) as well as a moral measurement.  Dirt and “pollution” have long been considered a menace threatening civilization, discipline and order.  Recalling the previous bit of history, slum dwellers and the poor were viewed as especially dirty and therefore likely to spread disease and with it disorder.  Cleaning up the slums could, therefore, neutralize such threats.  “Dirty” people, moreover, have often appeared as threatening, are seen as a challenge to the social order whether it be the poor, homeless, politically active or the inhabitants of underdeveloped nations.  On the other hand, when someone is “clean cut” or makes a “clean appearance”, it is taken to be a mark of stability and acceptability.  When Coxey’s Army marched to Washington, D.C., in 1894, it was characterized as a ragged rabble.  The anti-war protesters and Hippies of the 1960s viewed as part of the “great unwashed” were, because of their “unkempt” appearance dismissed by most Americans.   The “Occupy Wall Street” people who raised the issue of inequality and unfairness in America were often told simply to “take baths”!

Americans, and perhaps others as well, tend to judge other nations based upon outward appearances.  Cleanliness thus becomes a measure of modernity.  Typically Scandinavian countries are characterized as clean; so also the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany as well.  On the other hand, India, Pakistan, El Salvador, Egypt, etc., are “dirty”, clearly not up to Western standards.  (Take note, however, how rapidly a “modern” country can deteriorate when, for example, a strike by sanitation workers is underway and mounds of garbage become intolerable.)

On a less contentious front, once germs were discovered, American women in the early 20th Century were, as homemakers, held responsible for keeping their homes sanitized and sparkling clean.  Fortunately, along came washing machines and vacuum cleaners to “ease” their burden.  Even today, with “liberation” well advanced, keeping the house clean is still regarded as a primary responsibility of women.  Just listen to them make excuses when someone happens to drop in unexpectedly.  “The house is a mess”, they’ll explain, no matter what its actual condition.  And it is mostly women who are locked in a continuous struggle with their kids, especially those in their teens, over keeping their rooms clean.  There are, women will concede, few victories on this battlefront.

Men and women are impure, most religions tell us.  Accordingly, we must cleanse ourselves in some fashion.  Most every organized faith incorporates a variety of purification rituals (suggesting that cleanliness is next to Godliness).  “Impure” reminds us also of the viciousness and murderous insanities of our species.  Hitler committed himself to eradicating impure peoples while “ethnic cleansing” underlies many of the horrors of our own times.

Mind you; I have no problem with any effort to Keep my Village Clean.  It’s just that history reminds me that some people at times have tended to read too much into that.

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