Averting One’s Eyes

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000),  Robert Putnam makes a coherent and evidence-based argument that the generation of baby boomers that came of age during the 1960s and early 1970s doesn’t volunteer in the numbers of previous generations (described as “generational change” in many cases).

Many baby boomers, after the tumultuous decade that spanned the middle 1960s through the middle of the 1970s, wanted little to do with communal efforts to better society. Volunteerism to many of my generation did not hold the same value as it did for earlier generations. We had seen the horrors of what governments could do, and particularly the horror of the war in Southeast Asia, and many of us literally took off for the hills. Many others eagerly became careerists, and others did what they needed to do to get by and nothing more. Some stayed and remained committed to change in either one movement or another, but it was never the same and it finally all came crashing down viciously with the horror of Trump, bipartisan reaction, and mass ignorance.

The do-gooder ethos in the US dictates the importance of lending a hand to those in need, or supporting causes that contribute to the common good. Here’s the dictionary definition of a do-gooder: “a well-meaning but unrealistic or interfering philanthropist or reformer.” The do-gooder ethos does not change the material issues at street level in any meaningful way, but rather provides a salve for both the do-gooder and the social, economic, and political systems to pave over gross inequalities.

The do-gooder became institutionalized in many school districts across the US, with a mandate for students to take part in volunteer activities as part of the established curriculum. The impact of required volunteerism is dubious.

Here’s the rub, as Shakespeare observed in Hamlet’s soliloquy, but with a different outcome than the bard intended. Let’s call the thrust to do good the ethos of the do-gooder. The do-gooder creates the illusion that by actively involving oneself, or aligning oneself with others of like beliefs and actions, that the quality of a society will change. It is the opposite of the belief that a progressive political and economic program like Roosevelt’s New Deal represents. I would include Johnson’s Great Society under the same tent of government action to better people’s lives, but the Great Society crashed and burned in Southeast Asia before it could reach its fruition. The 40 years since Reagan have witnessed the destruction of the government’s role in the betterment of ordinary people and people in need, and that criminal enterprise was abetted by neoliberal Democrats, making the common good’s destruction a bipartisan affair. The latter has recently played itself out in the Senate’s refusal to pass legislation increasing the federal minimum wage to $15, hardly an exorbitant amount in consideration of the grotesque level of income inequality that exists today in the US. A scintilla of hope arose with the passage of the pandemic aid bill (the American Rescue Plan Act) that at least offers continued unemployment benefits and some relief for households after a hiatus of months and paltry benefits for millions of people. The bill’s provisions for families, including a child credit, and extended unemployment benefits are an admirable start to addressing the harrowing inequality the pandemic has caused.

It was no surprise when Bernie Sanders was double and triple teamed (a common defense used in basketball) by Democrats running for president in 2020 when he proposed mild reforms to the social and economic systems in the US.

A few days ago, I headed to a local food pantry with a donation and found that it was also one of the days during the week that the food pantry distributes food to those who want it. The line waiting for food had about 20 people in it waiting in the early March cold. I felt shame as I approached the place to deposit food donations just steps from where the line formed. The town where the food pantry is located is one of the major destinations for people from the greater New York metropolitan area and is known for its restaurants and other amenities for tourists. The area has become a major destination for people with the means to escape the pandemic in the New York area, and house prices and rentals have soared in cost.

As I left the food pantry, I wondered why greed and gross levels of inequality are not addressed in any long-term and meaningful way by the political and economic systems and the economic system enforces this shameful and inhumane debacle?

For some reason that I can neither logically, nor adequately explain, I continue to volunteer even though the society all around continues to decay, the contemporary decay and debacle caused by both its inequality and the pandemic.

Labor organizer Joe Hill said “Don’t mourn, organize!” That was good advice at the beginning of the 20th century when the power of the labor movement was on the rise, despite murderous repression by the ruling class. Contemporary society offers siloed social-justice movements that arise for a specific purpose and then fade away, often leaving nothing more than slogans in their wake.

“So much injustice,” (Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries,  1993).

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).