Rob Corcoran
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08 January, 2010

Rob Corcoran is the national director of Initiatives of Change. His book, "Trustbuilding: an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility", will be published by University of Virginia Press in 2010.

National political leaders underestimate Americans’ capacity for unselfish choices. The current pandering to the baser instincts of fear and resentment over issues like health care or climate change does an injustice to the generosity and good sense of this country.

As someone just a few years from qualifying for Medicare, I am appalled by the blatant appeals to self-interest made by congressmen (whose own health care is secure) to seniors, most of whom have excellent health care.

Yet, the newspapers are full of stories of people in every sector going the extra mile to care for “the other”. Muslims joined Christians in serving meals this holiday season to the homeless in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. An African American church in Oakland, California invited Hispanic immigrants to share their stories to overcome the resistance many blacks feel toward advocacy for immigrants, especially illegal ones, who are seen as unfair competitors for jobs. Church members signed letters to members of Congress endorsing immigration law change and quoting a verse from Deuteronomy: “Therefore love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As reported in the New York Times, teenagers told a market analyst that they “understood it was time for general sacrifice.” They were demanding less in the way of gifts this year; they empathize with their parents’ struggles and they are gaining “a new understanding of thrift and value.” This generation more than any other is likely to be found doing volunteer work, like my son who mentors fifth graders once a week. Participation in the Peace Corps and Teach for America is at an all-time high, and applications for AmeriCorps have tripled this year.

Many Americans of all ages are way ahead of their elected leaders in their readiness to serve. There is potential for a citizen-led movement to create a new culture of care.

In his masterful account of the fight to free the slaves of the British Empire, Adam Hochschild writes that for the first time in history “a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights.” Thousands of ordinary British people mobilized against entrenched vested interests. It was a true grassroots movement. At times working class Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own interests. Metalworkers in Sheffield, whose knives and scissors were traded for slaves in Africa, petitioned Parliament against the slave trade. Ending slavery cost the British people 1.8 percent of their annual national income over more than half a century.

In America today we have created an emotional distance as well as physical barriers between those of different socioeconomic classes. True, this country’s record of philanthropy is unparalleled. But many of us can live out our lives completely oblivious to the daily reality of millions. Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us that the working poor are the nation’s true philanthropists: they make it possible for the rest of us to live comfortably. Hochschild says that the British anti-slavery campaign succeeded because its leaders “mastered one challenge that still faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant."

What would happen if Americans everywhere demanded – and were willing to invest in – top quality education not just for their own child but for every child? Suppose we told our elected representatives: “We are prepared to pay a 10¢ tax on gas to help fund vital infrastructure repairs and to support green technology”?

In a recent column, Thomas Friedman quoted political theorist Michael Sandel: “… you cannot inspire shared sacrifice without a narrative that appeals to the common good – a narrative that challenges us to be citizens in a common endeavor, not just consumers seeking the best deal for ourselves.” Senator Bill Bradley put it this way in a speech to the National Press Club in 1995: “The language of community is about receiving undeserved gifts. What this nation needs to promote is the spirit of giving something freely, without measuring it out precisely, or demanding something in return.”

Will 2010 see the start of a new American revolution of unselfishness? Will leaders – both Democrats and Republicans – have the courage to ask it of us? If not, will we demand it of ourselves?

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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