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Doing Good, Looking Marvelous

In case you haven’t heard, Big Govemment has been safely consigned to the dustbin of history and “the Era of Big Citizenship,” as President Clinton announced just on the heels of gutting our social safety net, has dawned. Yes, unlike other nations peopled with diminutive, stunted citizens who continually whine for things like universal health coverage and a functioning infrastructure, our great nation has cast its lot with that most inexhaustible of American resources: native self-reliance. In other words, we’re letting the market take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. And where the market doesn’t avail—that is, in the case of those derelicts who just can’t seem to get with the new regime—we’ve got legions of enthusiastic do-gooders eager to help out. True, our cities have been desolated by redlining, deindustrialization, and suburban sprawl. But we’ve got the kids. The nice affluent kids, the ones who care. They’ll paint the walls, repair the roads, tutor the disadvantaged, and clean up the pollution—and they’ll do it all for free.

To silence any doubts about America’s new civic spirit, in April 1997 Clinton staged the President’s Summit on America’s Future, a three-day extravaganza of concerts, cheerleading, and public-service volunteerism. The basic idea was to evangelize the “MTV generation” in terms it could understand. Rapper LL Cool J kicked off the celebration at Philadelphia’s Marcus Foster Stadium, stoking the audience with a nice speech on family values and the importance of volunteering, followed by an evening of stirring oratory and performance from Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, Michael Bolton, and Brooke Shields. Former Presidents Carter and Bush were on hand to remind us that the stars are not the only ones whose hands steer the great ship of civil society, and Clinton himself, unctuous and televisual as ever, delivered the gooey keynote homily. If at times the proceedings seemed less than dignified for former leaders of the Free World (“We got all the presidents back there waiting to come out here, baby!” bellowed the emcee), well, that’s just part of getting through to the kids.

“I feel I can have a positive effect on society by empowering people through our products.”

After the hip-hop, the celebrity cameos, and the presidential palaver, it was time to get busy, as the summit’s organizers invited a mob of virtuous citizens to descend on Germantown Avenue, one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, for a grand spectacle of stage-managed civic virtue. Along with their celebrity leaders, volunteers painted over graffiti, cleaned up lots, and fixed up parks and playgrounds. The press swarmed over the place, camera lenses and boom microphones jostling to record fleeting moments of caring. The next day the papers carried images of President Bush wiping paint off the face of a young volunteer, Colin Powell cleaning up a vacant lot, and President Clinton leaning on crutches while attempting to paint a wall.

Germantown Avenue locals mostly watched dumbfounded. Many had not been invited to participate, and the invasion of volunteers left them slightly suspicious, wondering when the graffiti would appear again. One neighborhood woman complained that volunteers had painted over store signs by accident. Others gathered at a “People’s Summit” to denounce the President’s Summit as a cheap photo-op and a boondoggle. For the most part, an unbridgeable gap remained between the do-gooders and the do-gooders. Neighborhood residents “were saying they would clean up the park if they had adequate support,” one volunteer explained, “[but] I kind of doubt they would.”

In effect, the President’s Summit was less about helping the poor revitalize their neighborhoods than about letting the rest of us off the hook for not really giving a hang about Germantown Avenue. Not surprisingly, there has been no apparent follow-up to the torrent of good intentions the summit intended to unleash. Colin Powell, for example, allowing himself to be carried away by the spirit of the moment, suggested that civic organizations (such as his own, called America’s Promise) ought to guilt-trip corporations into bankrolling their projects. He seems to have accomplished little more than spooking potential donors, who, according to Business Week, regard the Clintonite civic spirit as backdoor socialism. “It could cost billions each year,” whined Susan Eckerly of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. A scheme Powell cooked up to raise $10 million from corporations for an advertising campaign on behalf of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America has raised “practically nothing,” according to a report in The New Republic.

As federal and state govemments increasingly shunt social services to nonprofit and community-based organizations, these groups have come into stiffer competition for foundation funding. Foundations have increased their contributions to human services-oriented programs by 6 percent since 1996—hardly enough to respond to federal spending cuts—even as their endowments swelled with riches from the stock market. Meanwhile, they seem to be as mesmerized as the Democratic Leadership Committee by the prodigal wisdom of the Invisible Hand. Foundation leaders have begun to worry that their subventions and ministrations are a mite too paternalistic—that they, too, may be breeding dependency among the needy. “Most [foundation leaders] choose to limit their funding to short periods in an effort to press grantees to become increasingly self-sufficient,” J. Gregory Dees reported earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review.

At the same time, corporate contributions to charity have declined radically. In 1986 corporate gifts accounted for 2.3 percent of pre-tax income; by 1996 that figure had dropped to 1.3 percent. In June 1988 the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that corporate contributions rose slightly in 1997 but still accounted for “just 1.1 percent of pre-tax income.” More and more corporate leaders are coming around to the view expressed by “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, ex-CEO of Sunbeam and a notorious union-buster, that corporate philanthropy is an unfair “confiscation” of shareholders’ money. “Even in good years, companies are increasing their giving less than the increase in profits,” the Harvard Business Review reported in 1994. “CEOs are no longer willing to serve as the champion of the giving function.” Bill Gates summed up the new mentality of corporate largesse in an interview with Forbes: “I feel I can have a positive effect on society by empowering people through our products.”

But if traditional corporate philanthropy is drying to a trickle, you wouldn’t know it. Everywhere you turn, on television or in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and radio spots, corporate leaders present themselves as empowerers, in accordance with the new Clintonite civic spirit, facilitating the flow of charity dollars through the miraculous workings of the free market. More and more, corporate philanthropy takes the form of what’s known as “cause-related marketing,” a technique whereby companies advertise their products or services and promote some charity with warm PR appeal. Buy our products, they tell us, and save the world. Typical of these campaigns is “Charge for Hunger,” run by American Express, a pioneer of cause-related marketing. Every time a customer makes a purchase with an Amex card, the company donates a small fraction of the charge to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit hunger-relief program. Between 1993 and 1997, Charge for Hunger generated roughly $4 million per year—much of which is consumed by advertising and administration costs. Cause-related marketing is the fastest growing form of corporate philanthropy. And it gives perfect expression to America’s new civic spirit. We don’t even need to leave home or venture beyond the mall to do good acts. We certainly don’t need to be taxed. We can be humanitarians simply by performing the most sacred rite of American citizenship in the late twentieth century: shopping.

But even for those who want to leave the mall or the couch, the very idea of public service has been transformed by the market into an apolitical, if endearing, lifestyle choice. The one-shot, quick-fix version of service—descending on Germantown Avenue, for example—illustrates just how superficial service has become. Even true believers in the “authenticity” of service are often shockingly naive about the essentially political nature of problems they attempt to tackle. Riffing on the bogus Generation X rhetoric of hard-bitten realism, many young leaders take pains to distance their projects from the fractious protest politics of the sixties. Too busy “getting things done” (the new slogan for AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s public service initiative), the new volunteers don’t have time to get mired in political debates—or politics of any sort, for that matter. Paul Loeb, author of Generation at the Crossroads, observed this new attitude in an interview with a leader of the Campus Opportunity Outreach League (COOL), a leading youth service organization formed in the mid eighties. “[She] stressed COOL’s authentic commitment, as opposed to the radical posturing that she associated … with her 1960s predecessors,” Loeb wrote. “‘We have Macintoshes and modems.’ Then she added, ‘We live our beliefs. If we say something, we back it up. If we talk about housing, we get involved in housing.’” Service, then, becomes less a moral or political commitment than simply a more “authentic” lifestyle. Once drained of politics and conflict, it becomes a game anyone can play.

Now there’s even an organization dedicated to connecting service with celebrity-worship. It’s called Do Something, and in the last few years it’s become a darling of traditional foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trust as well as corporate sponsors such as MTV and Blockbuster Video. The group’s moniker—modeled no doubt on the famous Nike slogan and ringing with lunk-headed pragmatism—aptly conveys its compulsive directionlessness. One of Do Something’s central missions is what it calls “messaging”—“creating a culture of cool around community participation.” Judging by the organization’s publicity organ, BUILD magazine, messaging is mainly a matter of connecting good turns with the names and faces of pop icons, including Do Something’s founder, Andrew Shue, star of TV’s Melrose Place.

The first thing you notice about BUILD, which is sent out for free to thousands of readers, is its fawning celebrity-worship. The likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Queen Latifah, and LL Cool J typically grace the cover. The second thing you notice is the advertising: Pepsi, Blockbuster, Polo Jeans. The third thing you notice is how the celebrity-worship and advertising work together. BUILD’s first issue featured a panegyric to the bottomless generosity of Shaquille O’Neal on page twelve. On page eleven, O’Neal’s beaming visage shilled for Pepsi-Cola.

Celebrities, ads, journalism indistinguishable from ads. Not unheard of in contemporary journalism, you say? That’s exactly the point. One ad for Visa offered a rather apt summary of Do Something’s essential pointlessness: A young woman needs quick cash to attend her friend’s wedding. The hipster slogan written in script across the top of the page reads: “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride (It’s cool, I’m not a big fan of commitment.)” Welcome, readers, to the real reason for BUILD.

Instead of the pseudo-populism of spectacle volunteerism, Alinsky believed in working with citizens to organize for a long-term struggle for power.

Here’s the new ethic of service, as elaborated in the Shaquille O’Neal profile. The Lakers star, it seems, likes to spend the odd afternoon cruising “depressed neighborhoods.” Here he’ll “pick out a rundown house where kids live and walk in with a shiny new TV set bobbing along on a huge shoulder.” And if no parent or legal guardian happens to be there to accept this prized appurtenance of the good life? Well, Shaq then “typically hangs around and watches a couple of shows on the new set with the kids,” What a guy! Perhaps not wanting to cross a boundary of journalistic ethics, the writer neglected to mention whether Shaq drops off half-racks of Pepsi as well.

BUILD caught a lot of flak for its puff piece on O’Neal, and since then the editors and designers of the magazine have become a bit more savvy. But not much. The second issue’s cover story on Rage Against the Machine, one of America’s “alternative” bands, listed front groups of the wacky, Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party to contact for more information. More revealing, however, were the band’s thoughts about activism and the role of the stars. “We try to help people empower themselves,” the band’s guitarist explained, “We tried in different cities where we played to organize around an issue which we knew would matter to people in our audience, which was music censorship. You can preach all day long to kids in suburban Illinois about United Farm Workers or something—but when they can’t buy the new Cypress Hill record, that’s something that’s much more concrete.” Don’t deny those kids their records, for who knows what sort of revolutionary fervor they’ll whip themselves into. They might even “do something.” Extolling the virtues of consumption now is not only service but downright revolutionary activity.

BUILD’s third issue didn’t get much better. Its cover story detailed rap star and sitcom actress Queen Latifah’s efforts to help “young people … control their destinies” by inviting them into her company, where they “master” important skills like “marketing and promotion.” Once again, doing good is essentially expanding the market.

Shaquille O’Neal may not be a parasite, Rage Against the Machine may not be nincompoops, and Queen Latifah may realize that her gesture is largely meaningless. Who really cares? The real question is, Why the hell are foundations and others throwing money at Do Something when The Neighborhood Works, a magazine making real contributions to public service, is on the ropes; and when other youth-oriented organizations—such as Unplugged, a group dedicated to ridding schools of commercial encroachment—struggle to keep afloat?

The answer may very well come from none other than LL Cool J, the star of the President’s Summit on America’s Future and the cover boy of BUILDs Spring 1998 issue. The magazine’s interviewer makes little sense of LL’s ramblings. Sure, LL makes some nice side remarks about taking “care of your fellow human beings” and talks about a camp that he sponsors. But then, in response to a question about injustice, he blurts out: “injustice—it’s all just a test. Pursue your dreams. Looking at most people in the world, most people, what they say they want and what they think about all the time always seem to be two different things. You have people say ‘I want a million dollars,’ and then they go in the house and smoke cigarettes and watch sitcoms all night. You’re not doing nothing about that million dollars.” Sounds like the fulminations of a libertarian Republican. But maybe LL’s remarks are like the arguments made by the philanthropists of yore about the “undeserving poor.” Maybe LL Cool J is saying that only those who want to become celebrities themselves—those who pursue their dreams of a million dollar—deserve the blessings of the culture industry and its humanitarian causes.

Whatever the meaning of LL Cool J’s remarks, they make clear just how vapid the recent American celebration of voluntary service and regenerated civic spirit has become. Rock stars as humanitarians. Painting over graffiti as solving the problems of the inner city. The market as social savior. Meanwhile, the public sector is dismantled, and the inner cities sink into nihilism. This isn’t to say that the state should or would take care of all our problems without local initiatives on the part of citizens. America has a strong tradition of citizens organizing together to demand social justice. In the hype about volunteerism lurks the shadow of Saul Alinsky—a community organizer who cut his teeth back in Chicago in the thirties. In contrast to the pseudo-populism of the President’s Summit, Alinsky organized citizens for a long process of political education and confrontations with landlords, developers, and other local political powers. Taking back control over their communities required long-term commitment. Alinsky believed that in order to revive American democracy, citizens needed to be involved in solving local problems. But he knew the tougher side of such struggle, a toll of frustration and heartbreak that neither Bill Clinton nor the lowliest grant-writer at Do Something could ever fathom.

A true renewal of America’s civic spirit would embrace heroes like Alinsky. It would resist the ideological onslaught against Big Govemment. It would fight to reinvigorate public works programs and demand basic rights like universal health coverage. Of course, it would have to recapture Alinsky’s fighting spirit as well. Where the corporate cheerleaders for our civic renewal today glorify the market, Alinsky spoke truth to those who wielded economic power over regular citizens. Instead of the pseudo-populism of spectacle volunteerism, Alinsky believed in working with citizens to organize for a long-term struggle for power. The Era of Big Citizenship won’t address our social problems or enhance our ailing democracy. That much is sure. But whether or not the community organizers and citizen activists of tomorrow can repair this botched mission remains to be seen.