Reflections of a Do-Gooder

In 2000, Robert Putman wrote the seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The thesis of the book is that the post-World War II generation of baby boomers did not take part in collective communal activities in the way those from earlier generations did.

Many among my generation wanted nothing to do with do-good actions following the horror of the Vietnam War, having witnessed its effects both in Southeast Asia and in the U.S. Many did not want to take part in volunteerism and other collective actions that were typical of the World War II generation. Some were exhausted by the years of antiwar actions and having the specter of militarism and war hanging over our heads. When the war ended, some headed for the hills, either symbolically or literally. Many others became careerists and some of those in that category never saw the do-gooder as anything other than foolishness. Some gave at the office, so to speak.

I was an outlier in that respect, as were many others from the generation of baby boomers that is now reaching its eclipse. Guilt was a motivator of many, coming from middle-class backgrounds with enough comfort to drive us into action. Direct action was also a powerful force for many of us. Dr. Willard Gaylin wrote a significant article “Feelings: Our Vital Signs”, in which he posits the theory that some feelings work to keep us honest and are sometimes a check on behavior, something some of us in the baby boom generation had jettisoned with little thought as personal and collective liberation was so important to us. Dr. Gaylin researched war resistance during the Vietnam War and he had written about it. Dr. Gaylin’s In Service to Their Country: War Resisters in Prison (1970) was a treatment of one of the most significant but under-reported issues from the Vietnam Era. Dr. Gaylin also wrote (with others) about the limits of official actions in Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence (1978) as a critique of official actions through social policy toward the elderly, children, and physically and emotionally challenged people.

Slowly, and over time, my inclination toward doing good individually and collectively took on a more realistic cast. Doing good sometimes was a balm or salve against increasingly predatory economic, political, and social systems. Recall Reagan, the Great Communicator, convincing millions of the idea that government was the problem. Why then have movements for political, economic, and social change if the individual was always solely responsible for himself/herself in a universe that was at odds with individual and collective well-being and common decency?

Why counter war when the war that was waged in Southeast Asia was a “noble cause” despite the mass murder and the personal and the environmental ruin that resulted? Why become a protester to preserve the environment if “trees pollute”? Why take part in the effort to reverse the production and war preparations around nuclear weapons if even outer-space was subject to militarization?

Some of the movements against political reaction and to improve people’s lives looked like efforts to put fancy clothes on a rampaging rhinoceros. These movements, to an extent, let the political, economic, and social systems that were becoming more and more right wing have a patina of respectability.

If a person works in a homeless shelter or in an animal shelter and elsewhere to reduce suffering, there is a demonstrable good. If a person goes out into the streets and counters white supremacists and anti-Semites, there is a demonstrable good. But, these actions, whether big or small, put that patina of acceptability once again on an authoritarian system that daily acts to destroy the environment and planet and spread militarization and empire in many ways.

War and militarism aren’t even contenders for the do-gooder. After decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, masses of those in the US were more than ready for another trillion dollar round of military spending that enriches the few, despoils the environment, and kills with abandon. Many on college campuses and beyond rightly hold their breaths in anticipation of student loan forgiveness from the Biden administration, but the general absence of protest in that same demographic group is mind-boggling! The idea of the proxy war in Ukraine as being anything but just is beyond the pale of many of that same group and among masses of people far beyond the hold of academia.

I recall a trip to Rhode Island by the late President George H. W. Bush to meet with the then governor and later convicted felon Edward DiPrete. While protesters, mostly antiwar, lined a cordoned-off area on Bush’s route to DiPrete’s private home in Cranston, Rhode Island, members of the group Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) placed themselves on the street itself and subject to arrest as an effective means of drawing attention to the AIDS epidemic and research to treat and cure the disease. The latter is an example between the sometimes toothless, but acceptable style of do-gooder activism and direct action protest.

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