Sorting Out the Pleadings

Washington Times  12.24.96
Balint Vazsonyi

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.