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The volunteer state.

The Presidential summit on volunteerism was the feel-good hit of the spring.

The media gushed all over it. Volunteerism got two thumbs up on the covers of all the major newsweek-lies. Colin Powell, the star of the show, was everywhere: dressed as Uncle Sam (he wants YOU!) on the cover of Newsweek, schmoozing with John Kennedy in George magazine, heaped with praise on the television talk shows.

Americans were encouraged to drop our disagreements, suspend our disbelief, and join the bipartisan love-fest in Philadelphia during the Presidential Summit on America's Future.

We got to watch President Clinton and former Presidents Carter, Ford, and Bush pose for photographers as they cleaned up graffiti. We got to watch Bill and Hillary make another treacly pitch for reading to tots, and then subject five Philadelphia children to their rendition of The Giving Tree. We got to hear Nancy Reagan exhort us to "Just Say Yes" to helping children.

And if all that wasn't enough, we got to hear Democrats and Republicans agree that "big government" can't help the needy. "The answers to our kids' problems -- illiteracy, fatherless families, teenage pregnancy, drugs, whatever," as George Bush so artfully put it, "lie not in Washington, but in our own neighborhoods."

Here were the most powerful government leaders of the last three decades assembled to discuss the needs of the poor in America. And here is what they came up with: There's nothing government can do. It's up to all you volunteers to fix the major problems of our nation. Rather than spend public funds to rebuild schools, reduce infant mortality, feed the hungry, or provide health insurance to some forty million uninsured Americans, President Clinton announced a new $27 million government initiative to encourage volunteering.

The President just struck a budget deal with Republicans in Congress that cuts $68 billion from existing domestic programs. On the eve of his election, Clinton signed a welfare bill that his own Administration estimates will plunge at least a million more American children into poverty.

Now he says it's up to private charities and volunteers to pick up the pieces. But the problems discussed at the Presidential Summit on America's Future are not private problems. Many of them are, in fact, uniquely government's to solve. The sorry state of our public schools and the health-care crisis are problems volunteers can't fix.

The people who do the serious work of running America's food banks and homeless shelters are horrified by the suggestion that they can cover for government callousness. Catholic Charities USA has objected loudly to Clinton's suggestion that charity can make up for the cuts in government programs for the poor (see "Girding for Disaster," March issue). The Food Research Action Council estimates that all the food in all the food banks in America would have to increase four-fold just to make up for recent cuts in the Food Stamps program.

"You hear these speeches and you want to retch," says Colman McCarthy, a writer and activist who has spent his life encouraging people to volunteer to help the poor. "Here you have government, a major causer of the problems, and here's their solution -- you go do it!

"You can't criticize the young people who volunteer," says McCarthy. "They're good-hearted kids, and they didn't cause these problems." But, he points out, volunteering is no panacea. McCarthy encourages his students at Georgetown Law School to give their time to a literacy program in Washington, D.C., and to the local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. "I've had hundreds of students go off campus and come back and say how wonderful this is -- it really changes the way they think and live. It helps the servers in obvious, immediate ways." But how much it does to solve social problems is another question altogether.

Despite the obvious hypocrisy of the Presidential summit, the press was largely silent. Instead of pointing out the gap between the rhetoric about helping those in need and the reality of budget cuts and increasingly meanspirited public policy, we got an earful about the great American penchant for volunteering.

"We are perhaps one of the most generous and philanthropic people on the face of the Earth," Powell declared. The media repeated this message ad nauseum. There were endless reports on the twenty billion hours of volunteer service Americans put in every year.

"Come a catastrophe, like the recent floods in North Dakota, and Americans turn out in droves to place sandbags and help victims," The New York Times giddily editorialized during the summit.

Why the lack of critical reporting? Journalists want to feel good, too, Steve Waldman, national editor of U.S. News & World Report, explained. "I think there is an underlying deep-seated sense of guilt in the press about being too cynical," Waldman told The New York Times. "This is your chance to redeem yourself, by doing journalistic good."

And so we had Jonathan Alter of Newsweek praising ex-general Colin Powell's "new war" on the domestic threats of poverty and despair: "The new threat required a new alliance -- one that's grand enough to muster the troops, but practical enough to let them volunteer every other Tuesday night after racquetball."

As if there were no challenge so great that an army of racquetball players putting in an hour every other week can't solve.

The very idea would be comical if it weren't so pathetic.

Instead of seriously addressing the crisis of poor children, our public officials and pundits are having one big spasm of self-congratulatory catharsis for the middle class. Powell's co-star, Oprah Winfrey, presided over the grand finale of the three-day summit, as Clinton, Ford, Bush, and Nancy Reagan signed a document declaring: "We owe a debt of service to fulfill the God-given promise of America -- and of her children."

The point of all this, it seems, was to say: Americans are OK! We care!

It's nice that the participants in the summit all feel so good. But to solve the problems of the poor will take a real public effort, and real money.

Peru's Bloody Hero

Alberto Fujimori is everybody's favorite strongman. His forces killed all fourteen of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas who had held seventy-one hostages in the residence of the Japanese ambassador for four months. One hostage also died, as did two Peruvian soldiers.

The guerrillas in Peru should not be romanticized. They took hostages, and that's never justifiable. But Fujimori did not seriously consider negotiating the Tupac Amaru's demands. Instead, he ordered their execution.

And the media loved him for it. Here's The Washington Post editorial, entitled, "Amazing Feat in Peru." Fujimori "has given a stunning example of personal leadership." Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer waxed more exuberant. "Never in this century's dark history of terrorism has a raid been so polished, so swift, so successful. The fact that only one hostage died in the raid was extremely gratifying." "And," Geyer added parenthetically, "one suspects it is also gratifying to many of us that apparently all the guerrillas were killed."

Was it also gratifying to Geyer that some of the guerrillas were executed as they tried to surrender? And what do Fujimori's apologists make of the fact that his soldiers mutilated at least one of the bodies?

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argue that the assault may have constituted a human-rights violation. But The Washington Post wants to hear none of it. The Post chastised critics for "patronizing" Fujimori "in his hour of triumph."

The Post didn't chastise Peru's government for turning down all requests for autopsies. Nor for failing to permit most family members of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas to hold funerals or even to see the bodies.

Such strongman tactics are nothing new for Fujimori. In 1992, the Peruvian president used his military backers and their tanks to dissolve the Congress, close the judiciary, any suspend the constitution, after accusing the country's legislators of stalling in the fight against corruption and the Shining Path guerrilla movement.

Many Peruvians have suffered under Fujimori's rule. The Peruvian army has an abysmal human-rights record, and Peru's prisons are notorious.

Peru's economy is not much better. The poverty rate has jumped to 49 percent; 17 percent of the people are so impoverished they can't feed themselves. The Tupac Amaru were trying to draw attention to this economic injustice.

But the U.S. government, and the big media, love Fujimori. He backs up his pro-corporate economic policies with real firepower. What could be more appealing?

Donna Shalala, Hello?

The Secretary of Health and Human Services should check her conscience. Her department is intentionally not treating pregnant women in the Third World who are infected with HIV. The Health and Human Services Department is funding nine studies on the effects of AZT, which has already been proven to inhibit the transmission of HIV from mother to baby. But as part of these studies, some of the 12,000 pregnant women have been used as "control subjects." They've been given placebos, and have been deprived of any AZT whatsoever.

As a result, says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, "as many as 1,002 newborn infants in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean will die from unnecessary HIV infections they will contract from their HIV-infected mothers."

Wolfe and five other physicians wrote to Shalala, urging her to discontinue these human-guinea-pig experiments. The "preventable deaths can be averted if you simply require all women in these experiments to be offered some regimen of AZT," the doctors noted.

The doctors drew the obvious historical parallel. "Many people will hear in these experiments echoes of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, in which poor, rural African American men were denied effective treatment for syphilis for decades so that researchers could describe how the untreated disease progressed in African Americans," the doctors wrote. "This time the people of color affected are babies from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, many hundreds of whom will die unnecessarily in the course of this unethical exploitative research."

Donna Shalala, call home. You left your conscience behind.
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Title Annotation:Presidential summit on volunteerism
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:1673
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