The Moment of Truth — February 26, 1999

Volunteerism Phooey

What do we care about in this country? I’m just curious. I saw Colin Powell [who made the army the same kind of pathway to pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success that Louis Farrakkan made the Nation of Islam] doing a commercial asking us to volunteer to be mentors to kids. Hey, if there’s some mentoring to do, if there’s mentoring that needs to be done, why don’t they pay people to do it? I mean, if there’s garbage to be picked up, they pay people to pick it up. Not much, but still. You wouldn’t ask people to volunteer to pick up the garbage, right? Although there is the Adopt a Highway program, where community groups like the Elks’ Club and the Ku Klux Klan volunteer to maintain a section of highway.

And that’s cool. That sort of community service is touching. It’s interesting that it’s always the touching stuff that you’re supposed to volunteer to do, or at least get paid very little to do. Work in a homeless shelter. Mentor a child. Teach poor people to read. Wash spilled oil off of sea birds. Visit mentally and physically handicapped people in their homes and take care of them. We pay people little or no money to do these things, and these activities also happen to be very touching, heartwarming activities.

What do we pay people lots and lots of money for? For doing things that are totally NOT touching, like laying off thousands of workers, rearranging ownership of resources so that fewer, richer people own them, or simply owning lots of stock. Those are not heartwarming activities, and they pay the most. Heartwarming stuff pays little or nothing, non-heartwarming stuff pays lots.

It’s simple. Heartwarming equals worthless. Evil equals valuable. That’s our society, that’s how it’s organized.

Can you imagine Colin Powell going on TV and urging people to volunteer to be stock brokers? "It’s a sad fact that many people with large disposable incomes don’t have proper stock portfolios. Make a difference in the future of America. Mentor an investor."

No, people get big bucks for stock brokering. Maybe it’s to compensate them for the fact that their job doesn’t warm their hearts.

Heartwarming. Heartwarming equals worthless. What do we mean by heartwarming? Why is helping poor people heartwarming? Why is helping animals heartwarming? Why is cleaning up nature heartwarming? Is there a connection between what’s heartwarming about these things that also makes them worthless to our society?

What do these three activities have in common? Well, what do poor people, animals, and the environment have in common? All three are excluded from access to the upper strata of social power. All three are pushed around and pooped on according to the whims of the dinky percent of people that owns eighty percent of the wealth. All three are more likely to be ill or die than people whose incomes are significantly above the poverty level.

So helping the relatively powerless and biologically fragile equals both heartwarming and worthless. Let’s test our hypothesis. What other population is both relatively powerless socially and relatively fragile biologically? Oh, I can think of a couple examples: children and old people. Do the people who teach children or help old people receive anywhere near the kinds of rewards or social lionization that are given to those who own lots of stock or fire thousands of workers?

Nope. Our experiment has yielded a solid conclusion.

I should point out at this point that I’m not unaware of the argument in favor of rewarding investors and other corporate profiteers so handsomely compared to us more filthy, lowly people. The argument goes that these investors risk so much, they deserve to be handsomely rewarded if their risk bears fruit. Blah blah blah.

What do they risk? Money. What does a person who volunteers to teach poor people to read risk? Her life. Because poor people have less access to health care, which makes them more prone to chronic diseases, diseases that are contagious, like TB, hepatitis, liver and cervical cancer, to name just a few. Being poor is hazardous to your health. In fact, one definition of poverty might be, "Having a special relationship with disease, violence and death." And according to this definition, old people, homeless people, children, animals, ecosystems – all of these entities who are what they are in relation to disease violence and death and have no way out of the situations that disease violence and death put them in, no choice in the matter, these are the poor. And the people who enter their world to help them in their heartwarming, worthless way are risking disease, violence and death, and – depending on their situation – are poor or may risk becoming poor themselves.

So, actually, the level of risk is inversely, rather than directly, proportional to the reward. The less risk a job entails, the more our society remunerates for it. Except in the case of underwater welders, who get paid pretty handsomely, though still not near what the big riskless rich guys make.

Unless we actually believe that prestige and power and excessive wealth is more important that people’s lives. Do we? I guess that’s what I just proved. We care more about prestige and political power and excessive wealth than we do about life itself. Whaddya know? What a sick society.

Well, not really. Just barbaric. And don’t start telling me about the barbarism of the Ancient Spartans or the Romans or the … barbarians. Yeah, yeah, there’s a difference. What’s the same, though, is the valuing of prestige, wealth, and social power over life itself. And so we’re still barbarians. As rational as we pretend to be, we’re not. And it’s not because we all have human hearts and are subject to love and grief and inspiration and anger – a society peopled by the passionate could be nonbarbaric. No, it’s not like our rational side is at war with some primitive, emotional id within, some mysterious, prelinguistic vestige of our animal nature.

It’s more like our rational yet caring side is at war with our screwed up, shallow, greedy side. The side that can see the worth of life in all its rational, emotional and spiritual fullness is at odds with the side that sees way more worth in job titles and golden baubbly geegaws and bossing people around.

That’s the definition of a barbaric society. Okay? A society that values prestige, power and wealth over life itself, and demonstrates these values, as ours does, in the way it organizes and distributes its resources, that society, this society, OUR society, is a barbaric society.

Our barbarism is displayed everywhere around us. It blares out of every TV and radio, it’s emblazoned on every billboard.

Now I certainly believe that human society can evolve beyond its barbaric state. I mean, we sure are educating ourselves thoroughly about our own barbarism, given the amount of resources we devote to bombarding ourselves with its insults to our better selves.

In fact, I believe that we will evolve beyond our present barbaric state. Why do I believe so? Simply because I possess an irrational optimism. Call it faith. I believe that we are witnessing the conflict between two trends: the trend of increasing recognition of the supreme right of living and nonliving things to their dignity, which I will call the good trend – and the trend of increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few selfish people, which I will call the bad trend.

I also believe that we won’t see the conclusion to this conflict until long after I’m dead, so I don’t really have anything to lose by being optimistic about the outcome. I’d even bet my life on it. I’d even put money on it.

Until next week, this has been mejeffdorchen and the Moment of Truth.