Sizing up `Hands Across America'. A longer look at what it said about us, and what it accomplished

Hands Across America was a puzzling event. In the end, it proved to be a solid, deserved, and essentially American success. Solid, because it lined up some five million people behind a charitable cause and raised an estimated $50 million. Deserved, because the cause -- the desire to help the nation's two to three million homeless persons -- is at bottom a selfless one. American, because the urge to aid the underdog stands squarely in the nation's ``melting pot'' tradition of helping the disenfranchised -- immigrants, women, blacks, native Americans, boat people, children in poverty -- find a political voice.

Yet the event raises profound questions about that very Americanism. What does it tell us about ourselves? Who are we, and what makes us tick? Students of popular culture, searching out the essential warp and woof of the American mentality in 1986, can find in Hands Across America a skein of self-definition that is at once intriguing and sobering.

Two threads in particular stand out: the dramatic and the evangelical. Both have deep historical roots. Yet each is thoroughly modern. To understand them is to comprehend something of what the poet William Carlos Williams called ``the American grain.''

The dramatic. Hands Across America, reported widely by the media, appeared to be a piece of news. It was, in fact, a piece of theater. Part and parcel of America's television age, it partook of the same strange blurring of news and theater that characterizes so much of contemporary experience, from terrorist incidents to presidential news conferences.

As a staged event, it fuzzed the line between actor and audience: It was a performance of ourselves for ourselves, in which we watched ourselves playing out roles created by ourselves. In the history of drama, that's nothing new: The Elizabethan masque, too, was performed by its own audience, with members of the royal court deriving a wonderfully childlike thrill from the make-believe. Hands Across America -- updated for the Age of Video, ratcheted back from nobility to the middle class, set in streets instead of palaces, and played for millions instead of dozens -- invoked the same thrills. In participating, we took on a larger-than-life importance, multiplying our image of ourselves onto millions of screens.

But what were we actually saying on those screens? Very little -- which, to their credit, the event's show-business organizers recognized. They saw it more as a consciousness-raising device than as a solution to homelessness. Like an Ibsen play, it was suffused with symbolism: the human contact of hand-holding; the not-quite-unbroken line that knit the White House to the houseless; the singing, the sunlight, the outdoorsy-ness. Unlike Ibsen, however, it had nothing to say. It simply was. It was an event of the feelings, not of the mind. Like so much of American television programming, it never set out to provide answers. All it could do was point to issues.

The evangelical. Hands Across America also had something of the flavor of a tent-covered revival meeting. Like the Great Awakening of the 1740s, and the upsurges of Protestant fervor that followed the restless young nation westward in the 19th century, Hands Across America played upon quasi-religious feelings and symbolism. Like a tent meeting, it was an outdoor, itinerant phenomenon -- fundamentally anti-institutional, marvelously democratic, and distinctly inter-denominational. And like the tent-meeting preachers themselves, locked in combat against the cold rationality of the Age of Reason, the organizers of Hands Across America had little to do with intellect. They reached out to those whose enthusiasm sprang more from inner urge than well-tuned logic.

Not surprisingly, they found a response. Deep in the American grain, after all, lies an anti-elite populism that longs to find grass-roots solutions for grass-roots problems. Looking back to its frontier heritage, perhaps, that populism tends to distrust institutions -- especially those institutions, comprising Washington's best and brightest, that have not been able to rid one of the world's richest nations of the scourge of homelessness. Today's righteous gun-slinger longs to roam the ranges of social activism unhampered by the red tape of cumbersome orthodoxy -- a freedom akin to that promised in the tent meetings of our ancestors.

Hands Across America, then, drew its great mobilizing force from roots deep in drama and evangelism. Anything wrong with that? No, as long as this heritage is kept in perspective. The risk of the tent meeting was always the easy-come, easy-go conversion -- the emotional high that salved the conscience without reforming the character. The risk of the videotape is that it exaggerates the importance of all it touches, flattering us that we have done something great when in fact all we have done is photograph ourselves. The risk of both is that they play down the importance of deep thought. Homelessness, as an agonizing personal challenge, needed to come feelingly to our attention. Now, as a highly complex social problem, it needs our steady, unflattered, deep thought.

A Monday column

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