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They've Seen the Enemy--It's the Poverty Within

April 18, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY — Sit back, and watch America wither.

The flame of liberty flickers today because too many Americans have withdrawn from active citizenship and too many ignore the wretched poverty and violence of the growing underclass.

Without leaders who will inspire solutions to the problems of the underclass, its seething hatreds could spark widespread urban warfare, creating "Beirut in Berkeley" as one speaker put it.

Foundation Conference

These sad and terrible prophesies were offered, again and again, by speakers addressing 1,400 trustees and staff of America's leading philanthropic foundations, who gathered here for the 37th annual Council on Foundations conference.

Notions of America in decline from rampant hedonism, rampant atheism, rampant consumerism or a thousand other destructive causes are not new. Jeremiahs preaching decline and doom are older than the Republic.

But for a variety of speakers to raise the issue in separate addresses at a single convention without having conferred in advance drew considerable notice among the trustees and managers of more than 1,000 of America's most privileged of elite institutions, foundations whose purpose is to give away money. The audience included some of the richest people in the world, such as Lucile Packard, wife of electronics-industry billionaire David Packard of Los Altos Hills.

The confluence of their separate remarks was all the more remarkable considering the amorphous topic that the speakers were invited to address--"exploring the many dimensions of leadership."

The prophesying about America in decline for lack of leadership came not from wild-eyed Jeremiahs, but from serious and successful Americans, including the owner of a metropolitan newspaper, an eminent scholar and a director of the world's largest corporation.

Other equally thoughtful officials of foundations and nonprofit service organizations raised the same or similar concerns in conversation over four days.

The solution consistently cited by speakers was less in Washington and city halls than in individuals who care enough to promote the common good, especially through the family, the neighborhood and the schools.

"The enemy isn't Kadafi, it's the poverty behind the walls of our inner cities," warned the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a director of General Motors and founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which runs more than 100 job-training sites. Unlike the polite, still voices of the other speakers, Sullivan thundered for the better part of an hour about inequality as a corrosive.

Narrow Interests Hit

The problem, each speaker said in his own way, is that the numbers of Americans actively concerned about the commonweal shrink while more and more Americans look out for their narrow individual, group or corporate interests.

We have become a nation lead not by leaders but by managers, observed Robert N. Bellah, the University of California sociologist who is one of five co-authors of "Habits of the Heart," a study that posits that "radical individualism" is running amok.

The book, widely reviewed as a liberal counterattack to Neo-Conservatism, examines American values in the 1980s compared to the 1830s when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America."

Americans, De Tocqueville suggested 150 years ago, might someday withdraw from active citizenship, retaining only a patina of democracy in which they would "rise up from their lethargy" every four years not to pick leaders, but to "pick their new masters" before slipping back into neglect of democratic duty.

Bellah said that wealth and power have become ends--instead of means--in America, leaving its people grasping for leadership and moral justification.

"When you think the primary question to put before voters is 'Are you better off today than four years ago' rather than 'Is society better off today than four years ago?' you are abrogating moral leadership," Bellah said.

The vast and growing underclass, lacking the most rudimentary social skills needed to find and keep work, is filled with hatreds that can easily be ignited, warned Robert Maynard, principal owner, publisher and editor of the Oakland Tribune.

Maynard said after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he went into the streets of Washington to report on the ensuing riots for the Washington Post. He said he asked rioters just 10 blocks from the White House if they realized what they were doing and he was haunted by the replies. "They thought it was a good idea" to burn down the nation's capital, Maynard said.

Doors of Opportunity

Maynard said "the civil rights movement blasted open the doors (to opportunity) for those who had the skills to enter the mainstream, leaving others behind to implode on themselves . . . a community of Americans in an America of their own" as alien to the rest of the United States as residents of a Third World country.

To many Americans, he said, the social control mechanisms that encourage lawful behavior no longer work because among the underclass "prison is regarded as just another experience."

Urban Warfare

In a brief interview following his luncheon address, Maynard said that if left ignored the underclass will grow until in 20 years urban warfare could become a way of life in America. "Beirut in Berkeley," he said.

Maynard told his audience that the most cost-effective grants they could make would be to provide small children with educational opportunities, such as Head Start, and programs that teach teen-age mothers parenting skills to shape young lives early to be successful.

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