Hail the gulf heroes

Sydney H. Schanberg

June 12, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York -- GRAND events like parades offer a sense of national sharing -- people of many skin colors, many religions, many disparate national origins all marching and cheering together. These are good moments. As emotion-stirrers, they help us feel positive about ourselves and they help us believe -- for a time anyway -- in the larger possibilities of America's democracy.

Each time we have such nation-celebrating displays, we try to cling as long as possible to the warm and affirming feelings, but usually life's ordinary pressures and abrasions intrude all too soon, sometimes almost as quickly as the ticker-tape is swept up and taken to the recycling plant.

The country's biggest parades, like Monday's welcome-home for the soldiers of the Persian Gulf war, are held in the city of bigness, New York. This is not only appropriate but revealing. The mix of people who live here is probably more variegated than any other city in America -- or the world. And so for the day of the shared extravaganza and its brief aftermath, New Yorkers get an infusion of togetherness.

This is not said with cynicism, for this city of centrifugal forces needs all the togetherness infusions it can find. Same for the country.

This parade came at a time of recession, when we all could use a pick-me-up and some good news -- particularly from the federal government in Washington. On the parade's reviewing stand were officials from the Pentagon basking appropriately in the warm feelings washing over them.

It is not their personal fault, but as soon as they departed the city, the rest of us New Yorkers were left with the deep damage which the federal government has inflicted on our ability to live together in anything approaching civilized conditions, never mind shared harmony.

The politicians and philosophers from the land of Reagan-Bush told us they were going to get government off our backs. They forgot to say that the burden they were removing was going to be replaced with a Sisyphean stone that would bend us even deeper toward the ground. Before Reagan-Bush, New Yorkers may have felt the annoyance of the government's weight, but the trade-off they got was a federal contribution roughly equal to 20 percent of the city's budget. In the decade since, this contribution has been cut to less than 10 percent.

This translates into a loss of something like $3 billion dollars. And it's this money that is the difference between reasonably civilized life and wretchedness. Libraries are closing, parks will not be maintained, low-income houses will not be built, schools will be forced to give less teaching to the children in greatest need of an education.

The social contract is already quite thin in this city; New York has never been a place that paid much attention to rigid enforcement of laws or regulations. It sometimes seems that more litter accumulates on a single block in this city than in the entire state of Maine. And now it's going to get worse, because with the Reagan-Bush federal abandonment of the cities, we're going to have to cut sanitation service, too.

The clash between the cities and the Reagan-Bush doctrine was seen clearly on Sunday, a day before the parade, at the graduation ceremony of New York Law School -- where, in a manner of speaking, Mayor David Dinkins and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu squared off.

Mayor Dinkins, in his commencement speech, talked of the failure of the major law firms to hire and promote more women and non-whites. Sununu, the other main speaker, preached a quite contrasting sermon. He said: "Personal responsibility is as much a part of the American system as big government."

That's the kind of speech you expect from someone who has just cut your pay and asked you to work harder to cope with your mushrooming problems. As in: "Someday you'll thank me for this, young man, because these sacrifices are going to build your character."

This has frequently been a country that does the large, imperial things better than the people ones. The prophets of bigness say that the railroads, skyscrapers, suspension bridges, space ships, superhighways and invisible bombers are proof of our vitality. But our infant mortality rate is closer to that of the Third World than to the Western industrialized nations.

Monday's enormous parade was good for our spirits. Let's hope it wasn't a placebo served up to humor us about our people problems.

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