Historic value of `Live Aid' depends on follow-through. The sentiment `We Are the World' should include needy at home

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When Raymond Aron wrote about ``the dawn of universal history,'' he may not have had in mind anything like last weekend's ``Live Aid'' concert for African relief. But the late French historian would probably have seen the event as a good example of what he meant. It entered universal history by virtue of being part of the experience, via television, of nearly every society on Earth. The idea of the Live Aid rock concert as universal history may irritate some rock fans, because it sounds so portentous (``Why're you tryin' to drop a book on Elton John, man?''). It could also annoy history buffs, because it seems to trivialize history (``Don't tell me Mick Jagger is fit to share an index with Winston Churchill!'').

So, before either group leaves in a huff, let me explain. The big double rock concert isn't being given the Raymond Aron treatment here because it was watched, via satellite TV, by 11/2 billion people in 152 countries -- almost as many as are members of the UN. That's a sobering statistic. But of itself it's no more historic than the 1929 Golden Jubilee of Light, in which a global radio network carried tributes to Thomas Edison on the 50th anniversary of his invention of the electric light. Instead of rock stars, that radiocast featured, among others, President Hoover and Albert Einstein.

The London and Philadelphia concerts qualify for Aron's title because they represent a step forward in making billions of people conscious of a major global problem -- and then getting them to do something about it. The concert marathon was a logical progression from the two global-selling records done by groups of pop stars in the last year for African drought relief.

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What was particularly notable about the Live Aid effort was its audience. It brought at least a momentary feeling of participation in the African rescue effort to large segments of society who don't always get involved in either relief work or charity. Liv Ullmann's four-year UNICEF quest to alert mankind to African famine problems reached members of the so-called drop-out generation. But nowhere near as many as Live Aid reached.

The ``me'' generation was never as self-centered as pop psychologists and news-magazine covers tried to make us think. But self-interest, self-development, self-fulfillment were certified as OK for young people in much of the industrialized world. The ``me first'' philosophy that Ayn Rand had preached to a limited following suddenly received mass sanction.

To say that the Live Aid phenomenon marks a change of mass attitude may be premature. Two further steps are needed to confirm such a change: (1) follow-through on African hunger to indicate this was no one-day wonder; (2) signs that a similar degree of concern will be shown for problems closer to home.

Follow-through seems likely. We have already seen stars from the two fund-raising records touring East Africa to discover what further effort is needed. And Live Aid sponsors wisely included agricultural equipment as well as emergency food in their shopping list for their $48 million-plus in pledged funds.

The second test may prove harder to meet. The homeless, the mentally disturbed, the neglected children in each modern industrial society seem less exciting to many people than the millions hit by famine and war south of the Sahara. Many of us have learned to treat the local needy as invisible. Rock entrepreneurs jetting across America or Europe don't see these people. They are at most a blurred image, while starving African mothers and babies are sharp-focused, deeply moving images, thanks to the same video beams that carried Live Aid to billions of eyes.

Somewhere along the line, rock promoters, legislators, and ordinary citizens have to start grasping the ultimate lesson. Something more basic than charity is needed. Education is probably the place to start. In Africa that may mean education in reforestation, contour farming, hybrid seeds, birth control, and a less male-dominated society. In America or Europe it probably means more attention to the education system itself, to see to it that fewer young people are left behind, unable to cope with society. Until that is done, either government subsidy or private charity must cope with the failure. It's a complex idea for concert or record performers to get across. But the pied pipers of the mass media might give it a try.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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