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.

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