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Are We Just So Many Grains of Sand?

January 23, 1986|RICHARD N. GOODWIN | Richard N. Goodwin is a writer and commentator in Concord, Mass.

Poet William Blake saw "eternity in a grain of sand." If we pause to reflect, we too can find large and ominous patterns contained in a myriad of small, transient events trapped among the mind-numbing proclamations and acts of the prominent and powerful that consume so much of what we are pleased to call "the news."

Last week, for example, we could hear the first faint sound of the mechanical devastation of Gramm-Rudman (may their names live in infamy!), when the Library of Congress announced that reading machines for the blind would have to be shut down due to cuts required by that law.

Almost the same day, a housemaster at Harvard University ordered protective shields welded over external heat grates where a handful of homeless men had found nightly refuge from the bitter New England cold. The mere presence of these men, along with their occasional remarks to passing students on their way to dormitory beds, was an affront to the dignity of affluent Harvard.

The incidents are different. The second is the cruelty of decent men who, quite rationally, determined that the problem of America's homeless would not be resolved by letting a few cold men use Harvard's waste heat--that, indeed, their somnolent bodies might obscure or divert vision from the large and urgent issues of public policies appropriate to the concerns of a great university.

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, was simply compelled to act by a law whose authors had no specific intent of depriving the blind--acting only to reduce the federal deficit not by rational and humane choice but by ordering cuts, and let the cuts fall where they may.

Public exposure and indignation caused Harvard, more aware of the needs of public relations than the mandates of the New Testament, to tear down the obscene barriers. Congress, on the other hand, felt no pressures of outraged opinion--only resigned acceptance that blind readers were the first victims of a design to cripple dozens of programs necessary to the well-being of nearly every group of Americans.

There is, however, a common thread that connects these two incidents--indeed, a relationship of multitudinous intricacy--that I cannot explore here except to dwell on the most obvious. When power is combined with the absence of imaginative compassion, decisions are made on the basis of "ideology" or "policy" or "national interest" without emotional awareness of the damage that is inflicted on the hopes and well-being of individuals remote from the source of authority. It is what Dylan Thomas meant when he wrote: "The hand that signed the Treaty felled a city . . . hands have no tears to flow." It is what we mean when we talk about bureaucracy--public or private, institutional or contained within a single mind.

The men at Harvard weren't "the homeless," but poor, God-forsaken individuals, with names and biographies, looking for a warm place to sleep. And those who used the machines at the Library of Congress are not the "handicapped," but curious minds seeking information or illumination among the written treasures of our civilization.

There is a less theoretical link between our two mentioned incidents. What happened at Harvard is only a single outbreak of a national disease--the numbing loss of felt responsibility for the well-being of our fellow citizens. It is a corrosive plague that is called "everyone for himself," and "each generation for itself"--awkward titles for an affliction that allows institutions or governments to ignore the collective needs that they exist to serve.

We see this happening with toxic wastes. Behind the evasive confusions of "policy" debates we are striking--at this moment, this very day--at the health of a multitude of individual citizens, many of whom are already declining from causes that they do not even suspect.

There are at least 10,000 toxic-waste sites in the United States--all of them a menace to land, soil and human health. Yet in the last five years only about a half-dozen have been cleaned up. It is, at the very least, a $100-billion problem. But the government is debating whether it should devote one-tenth or one-twentieth of the amount needed to restore the conditions essential to public health.

Meanwhile, a mounting flood of chemicals and other compounds hostile to human health flows silently through the loose-packed soil, along the unwatched bedrock of North America, entering by a hundred unsuspected passages the water that we drink and vaporizing into the air that we breathe.

We seem set on the slow poisoning of our country and its inhabitants. And this is one national failure that no class of citizens can escape. No amount of wealth, no high influence can insulate a family from the water and air that sustain all life.

But, like Gramm-Rudman or the heartless act of a Harvard housemaster, our policy on toxic wastes seems to show that we are losing our sense of continuity with our own legacy and with our children. If we are, then we are no longer a nation--just a group of people who chance to occupy the same space at the same time, who only feel compelled to do the best that they can for themselves, as long as things last.

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