One National Point of Light


AS GEORGE BUSH attempts to fill his 1000-member army by drafting a new point of light every day, as dedicated individuals try to uphold and revitalize our society single-handedly, we look to the heavens for hope--only to find the night still dark and the sky falling.

Our national failure to translate individual anger into social action is destroying American political culture. We have become resigned to the smugness and snugness of drugged individualism, resigned to the false idea that all our great national problems will be solved if each of us sets out to solve a small part of them alone. Recycle your newspapers. Be a point of light. Give blood. Think globally, act locally.

These are noble things to do, and society will not improve without them. But when they are done as "points of light" and not as supplements to an active government and an active society, they increase the separation between the actions in our lives and the actions in our political lives. The mythical private sphere expands, and politics becomes the residual that Reagan and Bush always hoped it would be.

We have been convinced--by Reagan and Bush, by big business--that collective solutions, systemic solutions, governmental solutions are wrong. But the price we are paying for accepting the primacy of personal solutions is our distraction from the real problems.

Put a brick in your toilet, and forget about protesting Bush's abandonment of the wetlands. Teach for America, and forget about protesting the cuts in school funding. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, and forget about protesting the economic policies that put the homeless on the street.

We have a national problem with the vision thing: We can no longer look beyond the isolated instance of injustice, discrimination or deprivation that we are trying to solve to the glaring need for social compassion.

We should not believe that agitation for social reform stopped because people sold out. It stopped because the empowered middle classes burned out on the hope for transformation in the public sphere, and directed their energies back to problems they could see and fix one-on-one. It stopped because the issues got harder. But now--in social welfare, in education, in race relations, in environmentalism--individual solutions are inadequate and illusory.

THE URBAN TANGLE of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, crime, drugs and violence is, by any estimation, an unyielding disaster. George Bush's approach has been to hit the problem with points of light and self-help. He is constantly giving certificates to neighborhood anti-drug crusaders who just said "Get the hell off my block!"

The Ad Council, an insidious, sugared, Madison-Avenue-styled voice of the federal government arm-in-arm with corporate America, runs campaigns encouraging us to volunteer, saying that if everyone just volunteered five hours a week, we'd solve everything, and still be home for dinner.

On the self-help side we have the sickening spectacle of politicians falling all over themselves to praise Clarence Thomas's rise to power. The message, not even implicit, is that anyone (and everyone) can be a Clarence Thomas, if he only tries hard enough. The implicit message is that anyone (and everyone) who isn't a Clarence Thomas is a deadbeat welfare mother.

But these volunteerist, bootstrapping messages are patently untrue, and they distort the economic reality that causes these massive social problems. The disappearance of blue-collar jobs from cities, the withdrawal of federal aid for housing and welfare programs, and the abandonment of inner-city schools have caused the urban crisis.

No amount of homeless shelter volunteering will get people jobs where there are no jobs to be had, or get them housing when there is none they can afford. A volunteer may make it better for the few people she touches, but only at the macroeconomics level can government and big business change the inequalities that keep the underclass under.

IN EDUCATION, we see the same sort of feint. Again, we have volunteerism: Teach for America is the new darling of the corporate sector. The plan is simple: Send active college students into public schools (preferably bad public schools), where they get paid shit. As the Ad Council says, "Reach for the Power: Teach."

A second form is lobbying for local control of school systems, an idea favored by some Democrats because it gives people a voice in their children's schooling, and by Republicans because it removes the federal government yet further from control (and absolves the federal government yet again from responsibility).

Finally, our Education President has produced an education policy that focuses on the individualist's fantasy: school choice. The idea is to give parents the option to choose the school for their children, and even give them vouchers for private and parochial schools.

Admittedly, much recent federal intervention in education has been disastrous. In most places, busing increased racial tensions and segregation, drove whites away from public schools, and increased per-pupil costs. But the individualism of the Bush-league is not right.

Teach for America sucks active, socially aware students away from larger agitation and puts them into schools where they become cheap labor for addressing school problems one student at a time. Vouchers mean that those parents who have energy will get their children into better schools. More power to them! But for the majority of children whose parents can't or won't make the effort, school choice means that the bad schools will get even worse, as their best students and parents and teachers are drawn away to the private system.

THE STRUCTURING of race issues is equally deceptive. There is a constant drumbeat, especially from Republicans, that personal racism is dead. Long live self-help! Even the bilious Strom Thurmond, former segregationist, wrapped himself in the Thomas flag. Public outcry against racism today amounts to scare headlines about incidents like Crown Heights or Bensonhurst, blown up larger than life, and declaimed: "This is terrible. We must eliminate it."

But overt racism of the Bensonhurst kind is an aberration. Racism--News Flash--is not gone. Institutional racisms--racisms which are nobody's fault in particular, but which are more pernicious for going unseen-haunt our society.

The endless (and generally mindless) debate over affirmative action has been about as productive as the PGA drive to make sure that every country club has its token Black.

The abandonment of cities by the federal government, the news media's obsession with Black drug crime and white suburbanites tolerance of drug violence in Black areas, and the creation of code-words for segregationism that allow David Duke to sound like George Bush with populist bite--all these amount to social codifications of ignorance of and unconcern for the Black underclass.

OUR RACIAL ENVIRONMENT, though, can be faring no worse than our natural environment. Personal environmentalism is where it's at these days. Recycling is chic. We are admonished to "Think Globally," (that comma reads "and." It should read "but") "Act Locally." We are told about 50 simple things we can do to save the earth. Ever the cheerleaders, the Ad Council trumpets "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," and "Make Every Day Earth Day."

But everyone is so busy buying string bags and bundling newspapers that we couldn't find time or energy to object to the ongoing degradation of our environment sponsored by the government. The Environment President wants to lease out vast tracts of the Alaska National Wildlife Preserve to oil and timber companies.

The Environment President proposed an energy policy that didn't call for alternative fuels, or mandatory conservation or anything so sensible, but for more exploration to fuel our consumption. Our environment president who promised that there would be zero loss of wetlands decided to redefine what a wetland was so he could open 33 percent of them to developers.

California's Big Green, a tome-like-referendum, would have given that state the toughest, most progressive environmental policy in the world. Its architects hoped that California's economic power would force corporations to adopt such stringent regulations everywhere. But Big Green was tough, radical and 800 pages long. Some places it probably went too far. But that was not what killed it.

A coalition of big corporations and conservative groups bankrolled a huge publicity campaign to convince suburbanites that Big Green was unnecessary, that as individuals they should do their part, but that radical restructuring would drive jobs from the state, not change the world outside California. The big businesses also implemented in-house recycling programs to show how much they cared.

Big Green lost, and companies continue to pollute, cars continue to pollute, streams are fouled, the water table is drawn down, pesticides are air-sprayed over migrant workers. And the recycling truck comes once a week to pick up everyone's six glass jars, five pounds of newspapers and three tin cans.

The noblesse oblige society needs a new calculus. Our social interests are not merely the sum of our individual interests. They are our social interests, our political interests, and they are riddled with conflict between individuals and governments and corporations and classes.

Each of us gives what we can to help others, as soon as the plea is made. But as long as we are individually responsive to and not socially responsible for our problems, our national neurosis will continue, and things will only get worse.

Our failure to translate individual anger into social action is destroying our political culture......Just put a brick in your toilet and forget about protesting Bush's wetlands policy.