The Inanity of a Volunteer

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The New York Times Magazine featured, as the cover story,
“The Vanity of Volunteerism,” by Sara Mosle. In it, she discusses
her six years of experience acting as a mentor to a group of inner
city, black children. Throughout the article she seems genuinely
interested in these kids well being, and the reader senses that
they are all better off for having known her.

Mosle's piece is not a paean to the virtues of volunteering. Her
personal story instead serves as the vehicle for criticism of cutbacks
in government “social spending” and for ridicule of the notion that
an army of volunteers can replace the state in caring for troubled

life of these kids is still hard, Mosle informs us, “despite the
boom.” (I picture her undergoing a mighty struggle to refrain from
writing, “The rising tide doesn't lift all boats.”) She tells a
heart-wrenching story of one of “her kids” fathers losing his job,
the family's eviction from their apartment, the parents' marital
split-up, life in a shelter, and the harsh realities of welfare
reform. Then, she admits that she really doesn't know if this is
what happened at all! What the heck, it sure builds sympathy for
her case, though.

Mosle's kids are frequently staring wistfully at things “that they
couldn't afford.” But Miss Mosle doesn't seem to recognize that
this is a universal condition of human existence. There are things
that even Bill Gates can't afford, such as a cooperative Justice
Department. Of course, the condition of being poor is such that
there will be far more things that you can't afford if you are poor
than if you are Bill Gates. As John Cleese's Robin Hood says in
Time Bandits: “Have you met the poor? Wonderful people. Of
course, they haven't got two pennies to rub together…” A look of
dawning realization crosses his face. “… but, then, that's what
makes them the poor, isn't it?” Unless Miss Mosle is advocating
a Communist utopia as the solution to her kids' problems, then there
will always be people who are, relatively speaking, poor, and there
will be goods that their neighbors have that these poor can only
wistfully long for.

one point, Mosle receives a phone call informing her that one of
her kids is being held by security at a Toys “R” Us because he had
“damaged some product” during an episode of wistful staring. Miss
Mosle's chagrin at the whole episode is palpable. Put a poor kid,
some video games, and a dollop of yearning together and… well, next
thing you know some stuff is smashed up. How of déclassé
of Toys “R” Us to make a fuss!

of the other kid's fathers was released from prison and proceeded
to steal all of the family's possessions, including the child's
clothes. Yet another dad, although “a present and caring parent,”
was addicted to drugs and repeatedly stole from his family. Finally,
after his “significant other” threw him out of the family apartment,
he broke back in by smashing a window, which “cut up” his daughter.
With “caring parents” like this, how could these kids possibly be
having any difficulties?

all of these tales are just an emotional shelling of the beach in
preparation for Miss Mosle's attempt to land her main force – a plea
for more government programs. Mosle continues: “That's not to say
that volunteering has no value. But it doesn't offer a systematic
solution to hunger, poverty or homelessness.” No, and neither did
the trillions of dollars spent on the War on Poverty. In fact, these
government programs have fallen out of favor because many people
realized that they were making matters worse rather than better.

fact is that these are individual, not systematic, problems. The
solutions to them are individual, and do not involve fixing “the
system.” Mosle makes a passing nod at the reality of the situation
when she acknowledges that it is children's families (and, she questionably
adds, their teachers) who are in the best position to help them.
But she concludes by saying, “What these kids need – what all these
kids need – isn't me, but a real after-school program.”

what these kids need – what all kids need – are good families.
In their absence, the most we have are stopgap measures. It is delusional
to imagine that we can evade this harsh reality by escaping into
romantic visions of the land of Cockaigne, where everything that
we find unsatisfactory about the human condition has magically vanished.
If we try to alleviate parents of the ultimate responsibility for
the well being of their children, we only will add more sorrow to
already troubled lives.

6, 2000

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to

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