Sorting Out the Pleadings
In the mid-1960s, the United States of America was the richest
country on Earth, both in reputation and in fact. I vividly recall
the general sense of wealth hitting me in the chest upon returning
from European concert tours year after year. Yet last week, a solicitation
arrived from Feed the Children, proclaiming that "a hungry
child dies in America every 53 minutes." From Paris came a
flyer handed out by the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony
who wanted audiences on their European tour to know that upon returning
to their families they "will have no means with which to put
nourishment on the table." And who could forget Al Gore in
the 1992 campaign, telling and re-telling how "everything that
should be down is up, and everything that should be up is down."
How did we get here?
The most difficult part is to sort out where "here" is.
If, as Feed the Children claims, over 15 million children go hungry
in America, how can any of us enjoy our Christmas feasts? If the
musicians in one of our most cherished artistic organizations cannot
put food on the table, we ought not to be able to swallow our own
roast fowl. The question would be how America sank from the top
to the bottom in three short decades.
Alas, there is an alternative scenario in which there are not 15
million starving children in America, and members of the San Francisco
Symphony will eat turkey along with the rest of us. Were this the
case, the question becomes how Americans sank so low as to humiliate
themselves and embarrass their country before all the world with
stories about abject poverty, making mockery of those billions around
the globe who really go without.
Four calls to Feed the Children failed to produce contact with
the president, who had signed the solicitation. Materials obtained
name the Children's Defense Fund as their source, but CDF's director
of research says that they couldn't and wouldn't make such statements.
Twice as many calls to San Francisco had the Symphony management
refer me to the players, who put me on to their own exclusive publicity
agents (costs less than food?), and the agents sending me back to
the players. At last, the authenticity of the flyer was confirmed
and I could contemplate the ways of our world.
The recent, shameless "recasting" of the Consumer Price
Index has been good for one thing. We may, henceforth, dispense
with statistics. They clearly represent text out of context, in
other words: pretext. Rather, we ought to examine the likelihood
that 15 million children and the San Francisco Symphony are starving.
Is it likely - we must find the reasons for such an outrage. Is
it unlikely - well, that's a different kind of outrage.
According to The New York Times, salaries at the San Francisco
Symphony range from $77,391 to 168,137 per year. The players, now
on strike, may have cause to demand more, but "no nourishment
for the table"?
The quantity, quality and low price of food in America is the headliner
story of Planet Earth. After tens of millions of years during which
all creatures great and small (including homo sapiens) spent their
lives searching for food, most inhabitants of this land won't even
spend a few minutes preparing food. They treat eating as a parlor
game to be played with nutrition "experts." Programs,
such as food stamps provide for those who claim that they have not
enough. Feed the Children wants $21 to serve 210 meals. At a dime
a meal, are we to believe that American parents, by the millions,
cannot or will not afford 10¢ for their own children?
Constant laments about poverty notwithstanding, it would be difficult
to demonstrate that America has indeed fallen. While many work more
and harder, we tend to overlook the vastly increased quantities
and varieties of things we own - from electronics to gym shoes.
The fifth-grader with her own computer and designer clothes did
not exist in the plenty of the 1960s, nor the mall stores selling
an endless array of ornamental objects. And we did not have to finance
Fort Knox-type packaging of everything consumable: trust governed
our civilized society. We trusted in God, and in one another.
Christmas Eve might be a good time to contemplate whether the two
go hand-in-hand. Trust is certainly the first casualty when a charitable
organization makes statements that would make Lenin blush. Trust
is the first casualty when musicians can travel to and eat in the
restaurants of Paris and Vienna, both very expensive cities, but
plead insufficient funds to shop in their local supermarket. Trust
has been the casualty ever since the 1992 campaign saw top contenders
for national office say literally anything that struck them as a
means to get votes.
How are we going to sort out where our charity truly is required?
How can we go on to revere artists as we used to? How are we to
reacquire the lump in our throat when the announcer says: "Ladies
and gentlemen, the President of the United States!"?
Perhaps we begin by remembering our national motto.