A thousand points of hype

I've spent much of my life working to get Americans more engaged in their communities. But I'm dismayed by George W. Bush's embrace of volunteerism, such as his co-chairing of the April 26-28 National Youth Service Day.

Community service should draw support across political lines. I'm delighted that AmeriCorps has been so spectacularly successful that men like Republican Sen. Rick Santorum can no longer get away with dismissing it as taxpayers paying "a bunch of hippie kids to sit around the campfire, holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.'"

But it's the height of duplicity for an administration that may be the most hostile toward the poor in 20 years to imply that everything will be fine if we just voluntarily pick up the slack. For those of us who've long advocated getting individuals more involved, it's tempting to use President Bush's calls for Americans to perform 4,000 hours of service over their lifetimes as a seal of approval for our efforts. But his benevolent words demand nothing of his administration and change no budget priorities. Worse yet, they take the commitment of America's volunteers and use it to give political cover for choices that attack the very communities that the volunteers serve.

"We want to be a nation," Bush's speechwriters say, "that serves goals larger than self." It sounds harsh, but Bush's administration has contradicted these caring sentiments by proposing funding cuts for child-abuse prevention, after-school programs, community policing, training for dislocated workers, and low-income child care, healthcare, and reading programs. Meanwhile, the tax break he passed will give $75 billion a year to the richest 5 percent. This isn't a record of compassion.

To challenge such actions requires an ethic of accountability. We don't want to resemble a Stanford student who explained how he'd learned more from his community volunteering than from his courses in school. "I hope that one day," he said, "my grandchildren will get to have the same experience working in the same homeless shelter that I did." Friends reminded him that they were working for a future when no one in a country this wealthy would need to sleep in a shelter.

We might compare the situation of volunteers to people trying to pull an endless series of drowning children out of a river. Of course we must address the immediate crisis, and try to rescue the children. But we also need to find out why they're falling into the river – if only because no matter how hard we try, we lack the resources, strength, and stamina to save them all.

We must go upstream to fix the broken bridge, stop the people who are pushing them in, or do whatever else will prevent them from ending up in the water in the first place. As the Rev. William Sloane Coffin once said, "Charity must not be allowed to go to bail for justice." The behavior of society's major political and economic institutions is too consequential to ignore. And we're in trouble if what once were shared responsibilities are now made private – and voluntary.

So let's honor the volunteers, but not use their hard work to excuse destructive policies. Let's get involved, then ask what common choices are creating the wounds we work to heal. Let's listen to those who come to the food banks and homeless shelters, battered women's centers and Boys and Girls Clubs. Instead of hiding behind sentimental phrases about how much we all care – what I'd call 1,000 points of hype – let's join with those whose voices have been silenced. That would be the real service to America – and to our common humanity.

• Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of 'Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time' (St. Martin's Press, 1999) and three other books on citizen involvement.

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