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Down-And-Out American Voices


ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
The Common Interest. By Leslie Dunbar. Pantheon. $9. 95 paper.

The title of this book is a phrase many of us use from time to time—a modest declaration of transcendence, perhaps: there are certain matters that we all have an interest in examining, as members of a particular community or nation, even if as individuals we might not be so disposed. The author, Leslie W. Dunbar, is a one-time political scientist who has given his working life to such common interests—at the Southern Regional Council, a group of white and black Southerners who have helped mightily a region escape its past of prejudice, and in the world of philanthropy, where he took bold and brave steps to document all sorts of inequities in American life. Now, in a compelling and suggestive narrative, he asks us to examine our assumptions about the nature of American society—its values, its manner of responding to the various difficulties of its citizens. He also asks us to pay heed to others, the recorded voices of more than two dozen men and women, from all over our nation, who tell of their lives, their hopes and dreams, their worries and doubts, and not least, the disappointments and frustrations they have experienced. They are young and old, black and white, husbands and wives—people who are trying to make a go of it, who have been asked to stop for a moment or two and take stock, then put to words what they think and feel and believe.

Those personal statements, an important part of Mr. Dunbar’s presentation to us, are a mirror of sorts held up close to the reader—and a contrast, indeed, with the words sent our way so often these days by big shots who are called “experts,” or who write editorials, work out of various “think tanks.” It is painful, at times, reading those words, learning of all the suffering that so many hard-pressed Americans must experience in this rich and powerful country, still the envy of so many other countries. But it is also heartening to realize that many of us who aren’t doing so well can, nevertheless, summon the personal strength and the intelligence to size things up, to comment critically on what is happening around us, on what some people have had to endure. In a sense, then, these are the remarks of a people still free—of citizens who may have few economic resources and who may be vulnerable socially, racially, yet are politically “free” enough to make known their thoughts, their reservations about our nation, their criticisms and complaints.

These voices, and that of the author, are not the kind we have lately been hearing in our national life. For 20 years, a full generation, the poor, the aged, the infirm, not to mention our vulnerable children, have hardly been heavily on the minds of our leaders. My students talk about the 1960’s as if they were distant years, firmly a part of our history. Their consciousness begins with the late 1960’s (the graduate students) or the 1970’s. Even some of them who share Mr. Dunbar’s egalitarian social views and politics think of themselves as guarded with respect to the hopes they entertain on behalf of the poor. Many others, of course, worry about matters Mr. Dunbar has not chosen to emphasize—the financial troubles of our nation. His mind is that of a moral philosopher, a political analyst, rather than that of an economist. He wants billions more for a truly adequate welfare system, and he argues that such a program is necessary for our nation’s vitality and well-being—is an element in “the common interest” we all share as citizens. His assumption is, one begins to realize, that such an agreement on the part of most of us is essential—and then we can proceed with legislation. As he well knows, however, a massive deficit now has many legislators, even liberals, reluctant to propose the kind of sweeping reforms he would argue to be essential for the hurt and ailing and impoverished people of our 50 states. When military expenditures are made, of course, a different point of view seems to obtain—a “common interest,” then, in our nation’s self-protection. In essence, Mr. Dunbar believes that the millions of hungry or homeless or jobless people, the millions of elderly and infirm people, who are not getting the kind of care and services and support they so urgently need are, in their collective sum, as much a threat to our national or common interest as any foreign nation’s guns or missiles have ever been. If a majority of those who vote shared such a point of view, needless to say, our nation would be different in many respects.

As I read this book I realized, yet again, how poignantly and forcefully ordinary men and women can express themselves—the direct, candid talk of people who know exactly what is right and what is wrong about their own lives and those of others. Yet how many of us have an opportunity to say what is on our minds, so that others might attend us. To be sure, we who write (or review) books have no trouble letting others know what we uphold or cherish or find deplorable. But we tend to be a rather comfortable lot; “we” are academics or writers or journalists and, so being, are spared the harsh marginality one witnesses in certain sections of our cities or, indeed, in parts of rural America. True, some of us declare our compassion for others, and urge reforms. Nevertheless, we write at a remove from the daily, experiential thrust that comes across in the remarks of people who speak from the heart and soul of a particular kind of down-and-out life, or one in intermittent or constant jeopardy. It is so tempting for us to find refuge in abstractions, in weighty debates, in worried ruminations, often uttered as if the speaker has forgotten that for millions of people the issue is not intellectual discussion but a day-to-day struggle for bread, for work, and yes, even for a roof over a family’s heads. In The Common Interest, to the great credit of its thoughtful and utterly decent, honorable author, such a posture—the aloof self-satisfactions all too many of us enjoy as a class privilege—gets harder and harder to assume, as page after page offers the observations of so-called “working-class” Americans, all too ready for a chance at a decent, useful life, and all too aware that such a chance may not be forthcoming in the forseeable future. These are the comments of people who have yet to lose their dignity, their thoughtfulness, their good judgment. While others, these days, give them the brushoff, or call them the thinly disguised swear words of the social sciences, Mr. Dunbar chooses to regard them as knowledgeable fellow citizens who have a lot to teach us. The Common Interest offers essays on our contemporary political situation and suggests an ethical response to aspects of that situation. But the book also calls earnestly and at length for advice from those whose problems it means to address—and so doing, teaches us morally by example rather than exhortation.

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