It’s that time of year again and CNN’s annual Heroes show is coming up. Any reasonably compassionate viewer is likely to be thrilled by the accounts of noble souls performing selfless acts of loving kindness and social justice and will be glad these wonderful persons are being honored. It might not be disrespectful or inappropriate however to reflect upon Arundhati Roy’s argument against the “NGO-ization” of social programs to promote the common good. [e.g., Democracy Now, 8/23/2004]
First, a brief digression to consider the origins in American culture of such social programs or as the founding fathers put it in their Preamble to the Constitution, programs to “promote the general welfare.” This was 200-some-odd years before “welfare” became the dirty word it is today. The venerated icons of the American way of life recognized that hardships that were nobody’s fault were likely to arise from time to time. Winter might be unduly harsh. Crops might fail, locusts swarm. The levees could burst. Beavers might chew out the dam. The family breadwinner might suffer debilitating illness. Such unwelcome events were likely to occur quite at random, affecting the “general welfare.” It seemed, manifestly, that the wise and humane thing to do was to establish a means for helping each other in time of trouble; metaphorically, to establish a kind of social safety net or insurance policy that would cover everybody (at least everybody that mattered, i.e., white male property owners of substance—but that’s a separate issue). The founding elders wished after all to “establish a more perfect union,” an in-this-togetherness that gave strength in numbers, collective identification and communal bonding to citizens of the young nation. It was good to be in with the in-crowd.
Life is not generally so harsh these days, but it does have its challenges, and it would be presumptuous for a casual observer to judge who has it tough and who doesn’t—when we are speaking about individuals. When it comes to groups, demographic patterns unambiguously reveal clusters of folks—usually ethnic minorities, but not always—that have the roughest sledding, as attested by higher rates of poverty, crime, murder, incarceration and so on. Such demographic patterns elucidate societal problems due to imperfections and failings of the society itself, which brings us to Roy’s point: that promoting the common welfare is properly the work of society and should not be left to the vagaries of charitable institutions and individuals, whose ability to help may be a pittance in comparison to the resources of the state.
No one would wish to argue that the achievements of those born of privilege are not remarkable or should be disparaged, for there are always challenges to be conquered—including problems of psychological adaptation—even by those who grow up in mansions in gated communities and go to elite private universities. Surely however the less privileged in their poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods face far greater challenges. To ignore society’s failings and claim that the fault for the plight of these hard-hit communities rests solely or largely with the individuals within them—that it is something about them that is the problem, their “blackness” or “laziness” or whatever—is to make a racist statement. This type of racist statement is made extremely often under the guise of the dogma of “personal responsibility,” i.e., that the essence of the matter is in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, that only failures of effort and initiative are responsible for people’s woes, and that accordingly there no longer remains any need for the social safety nets envisioned by the founding fathers. It takes no great perspicacity to discern the self-serving bias of such rhetoric.
The founding fathers considered promoting the common welfare of such importance that they enshrined it in the Preamble to the Constitution. Nowadays we are urged instead to heed those who, having reached the mountaintop—often boosted by public aid or family fortune—would cut the safety ropes by which those at the bottom might struggle up, and from their cozy perches preach the virtues of “tough love” and rugged individuality.
I know of no reason to suspect anyone at CNN or otherwise associated with the Heroes show of subscribing to and/or attempting to further a neoconservative or related ideological framework that would endorse the shifting of society’s responsibility for promoting the common welfare onto the shoulders of NGOs and individuals. But the show by its very nature is perfectly consonant with such a stance and reinforces it in the cultural Zeitgeist.