Early in our country’s history, fire was a major threat to whole towns and cities. So citizens got together and formed effective volunteer fire departments.
Other citizens worked to establish public libraries because they believed books and publications should be accessible to all. Like educational Johnny Appleseeds, farsighted pioneers gathered funds to establish colleges throughout the land.
In the 19th century, neighbors petitioned the post office to expand its services, and it did. Farmers, exploited by railroads and financiers, organized their own civic action groups.
We need to recall these and many additional examples from the past to understand better the need for new civic institutions to respond to the aggregations of power and abuse which have evolved in the last generations.
Ours is a society beset with problems, but its leaders and power holders seem indifferent to solutions. What is worse is they expend much effort keeping people from communicating and working together to find these solutions at the community or neighborhood levels.
The media doesn’t help much. There is nothing more calculated to bore the media than answers to widely reported abuses. Thus, there is proper emphasis on recent government and corporate crimes, from Watergate to the current revelations of big-business bribes and payoffs.
But the media are singularly uninterested in reporting about proposals to correct these abuses or actual models of countervailing justice that are in operation in one place or another. Questions at presidential and other press conferences reflect this indifference consistently. Campaigning politicians behave accordingly.
Often there is a need to look systematically for these proposals or models that work around the land, as Peter Jennings of ABC recently urged. But frequently, no such ferreting is required.
Take the pending legislation to establish a national consumer cooperative finance bank which would help consumer cooperatives help themselves through the extension of credit and technical assistance. An impressive coalition of consumer, farm and labor groups are backing this idea.
I believe it to be a major innovation in strengthening consumer-owned private enterprise in the areas of food stores, housing, health, service repair and other retail outlets.
This is not only necessary to provide consumer bargaining power against monopolistic practices but also to reconstruct large areas of the cities abandoned by business, particularly by the banks and insurance companies.
Hearings earlier this month were held by the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Institutions, chaired by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thomas McIntyre, D-N.Y.
With few exceptions, the media, on the Eastern Seaboard at least, ignored the hearings. Yet the testimony provided exciting material about specific food, auto repair, optical service, housing and other cooperatives that are meeting abuses common throughout the land.
These abuses, such as auto repair gouges or overpriced eyeglasses, have been widely reported during the last five years. Along come thriving examples of reform, and they are ignored.
One of our recent books, “Proudly We Hail” by Kenneth Lasson (Viking Press, New York), brought together in short, human interest descriptions the civic accomplishments by various citizens and groups. These people are doing things for health, safety, justice and democracy that many other Americans could also do to improve their community.
It helps, however, for people to learn about these successful models. Can they, when so much of the media is overwhelmingly absorbed by such distractions as the Hearst trial, prominent divorces or the latest burps of the mimeograph politicians?
On April 8, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (1757 S St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009) will launch its second annual Food Day.
All kinds of learning and action projects, dealing with nutrition, diet, vending machines, hunger and high food prices, are being distributed around the country.
Yet the nonprofit center almost has to rely on the mails and word of mouth to reach people with its materials and examples of individuals (the Terrific Ten, they are called) who have shown what can be done for better food policies.