The serious matter of American values: time to take stock The thousand points of light are burning out


I WAS driving home from work about a week ago when I spotted them, on the corner of Calvert and 33rd streets, I think. They were mostly young people; it was mostly dark. They were holding candles and signs hastily scrawled in marker on poster board: "Bring the troops home."

It is more than Christmas, of course, that has fueled the sense of urgency about the plight of AmeriLindaCottoncans in the gulf; the nation's college students -- for whom Vietnam is just another boring chapter in a history book -- suddenly are hearing talk of a musty, old tradition called the draft.

It is unlikely, surely, that the present conflict will result in college kids being wrenched out of accounting class and sent to the Persian Gulf. But the resurgence of student protest brings up a question that has been dormant for decades: What is it, exactly, that is worth dying for?

A National Public Radio interviewer recently asked some high school students, and the answer was consistently disturbing: Nothing. One young man, apparently a born-again environmentalist, did say he would give his life to save the dolphins and to promote recycling. But the others mocked him; few young people could name anything they deemed worth protecting with their lives. Not home. Not family. Not country.

I think this speaks more of a general malaise that has settled over the American public than it does to the convolutions of adolescence. Perhaps it is that the selfishness which was glorified during the Reagan years has finally taken root and blossomed, or that in tough economic times, people simply are consumed with their own survival.

Nonetheless, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors met this week it cited public apathy as the cities' No. 1 problem. The conference's annual report probed hunger and homelessness in 30 cities, and found the American public unphased by the growing desperation so evident in the streets. Americans were routinely irritated by panhandlers, the mayors said, and they were losing patience with the needs of the the homeless as well.

This too, it seems to me, is a cold leftover from the pretentious banquets of the '80s -- a belief that it is the fault of the homeless themselves that they must sleep under bridges wrapped in trash bags, and so there is little reason to reach out to help them.

The dilemma undoubtedly will become worse as the recession trickles through the economic system, and the numbers of men, women and children who are homeless, hungry, needy and desperate increases. This is because at the same time the thousand points of light are burning out, state and federal funding for shelters and feeding programs -- from WIC to soup kitchens -- are being cut in the name of deficit reduction.

This year, the mayors found, the demand for emergency shelter increased a frightening 24 percent; requests for food aid in cities throughout America shot up by 22 percent. At the same time, giving everywhere was down. All the annual brown-bag food drives and winter coat collections are falling behind what's needed, and the fiscally debilitated cities and states aren't picking up the slack. The bottom line is that emergency food resources were up only 4 percent, and the number of shelter beds increased by a paltry 3 percent.

It is perhaps unfair to suggest that if the government made the poor a priority the public might give their plight a little more credence. But it is clear that George Bush's notion of volunteers filling the gaps left by government is entirely bogus.

More than that, the growing disparity between need and help means that more men and women will be out on the streets this winter; more children will be hungry this Christmas; more babies and old people will die. And the mayors lamented that while everyone plainly sees this human suffering, no one seems to care.

The problem, I think, is not so much that Americans don't care as that there is, now, a pervasive lack of commitment and compassion. Not merely a belief that there is nothing worth giving your life for, but that there is, in fact, nothing worth going out of your way for.

The gulf protesters who stood on the street in Baltimore the other night, and their counterparts who have engaged in similar activities all over the country, have set off a critical debate by questioning the assumptions of the U.S. policy in the gulf: What is worth dying for? What do we believe in?

Pundits speculate that it won't end here; that there's a full-blown resurgence of the '60s coming, and that it is evident already in the popularity of tie-dyed T-shirts and Grateful Dead CDs. I'm not so sure. But if indeed it does come, we should surely welcome it: A little peace and love would go a long way about now.

Merry Christmas.

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