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In Doing What's Right, Tavis Smiley shows how each one of us can battle complacency and fight for the causes we support. Smiley is the host of "Black Entertainment Television Tonight with Tavis Smiley," a one-hour nightly talk show that reaches fifty-five million households, and his political and social commentary is heard daily on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," a national radio program with a listenership of seven million. "The Smiley Report," his monthly newsletter, has a circulation of three to four million readers.
Smiley's career was inspired by his lifelong determination to make a difference. Through the media, he has helped to galvanize public opinion and initiate national grassroots campaigns on everything from corporate responsibility to voter turnout. In Doing What's Right, Smiley urges everyone to become involved and presents a practical and motivating gameplan for making it happen.
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Why We Need Advocates
To let the politicians and the social indicators tell it, these are absolutely the best of times in the United States, the most prosperous society in the world. The economy is booming. Jobs abound. Crime is down. Unemployment is at a thirty-year low, the Dow is at an all-time high. More Americans own their own homes than ever before. Other factors that speak to quality of life--college enrollment, birthrates, salaries, consumer purchases--are also on the upswing.
But beneath these good vibes and good times lies a dark underbelly of despair, for America's problems are more serious than we want to believe. Our economy is booming, but a number of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America have had serious problems which could eventually hit home with us. Jobs are abundant, but the majority of them either require advanced technical skills or are service-industry positions that barely pay a livable wage--hardly a choice for unskilled people who are leaving the welfare rolls to join the workforce. We are not certain that Social Security or Medicare will survive long enough to take care of the huge baby boom generation. Crime is down, but violent crime is up, especially among juveniles, and the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, basically rendering the jailed useless to the rest of society. Blacks and Hispanics remain less likely than whites to secure a home mortgage. And the Dow is hardly a barometer for measuring the heartbreak of those who are wondering where their next meal is coming from.
We can continue to ignore these unsolved problems, or pay short shrift to them, but if we do, they will remain with us well into the new millennium. They will worsen and foster an environment for new problems, creating a burden for our children and grandchildren.
We had heady prosperity during the 1980s too. But we chose to live for the day. We ran up huge debts on our credit cards, financed ourselves to the hilt, and got in way over our heads. We ran up huge debt on the nation's credit cards as well, creating massive federal budget deficits that were creeping toward the trillions of dollars. Then we crashed and burned. We ended the eighties in a recession. Now, ten years later, things are good again. But we may be setting ourselves up for another crash-and-burn. Indeed, as I write this book, President Bill Clinton and the Republicans are at war over what to do with a federal budget surplus. The Republicans were pushing a plan to cut taxes by billions of dollars, while the president argued that the GOP tax cut would rob safety-net social programs of much-needed cash.
Right now, America is experiencing an erosion of values in its communities. There is an increasing sense of isolation in neighborhoods, as more of us simply pass through on our way from one city to the next and fewer of us truly get to know the family next door. Militia groups attack our government as an entity; indeed they work to destroy our government. They don't value patriotism as we know it--they think they are being patriotic by rejecting, in the name of constitutionally protected personal freedoms, everything the United States stands for. We watched millions of people die in Rwanda and Bosnia and did virtually nothing to stop those slaughters. Instead, we debated whether we needed to get involved in such conflicts because the United States can't police the world. Increasingly, holding elective office has become more about raising money than raising issues, where serving private interests becomes more important than serving the public good. We used to greet new neighbors with fresh-baked pies. Today we greet them with laws that demand disclosure of whether they are sex offenders. All of these things converge to turn the Internet, a concept that was meant to revolutionize our society, into an arena that offers up some of the worst around us: hatespeak, child pornography, sedition. We want the advances the Internet and its associated technology bring, but the Internet also exposes some of the excesses that have become so much a part of our society.
As people take up arms in anger, neither our workplaces nor our homes--as evidenced by the rise in domestic shootings--offer protection. Not even our schools and churches are safe. The rise in violence in our streets has become so commonplace that people have grown inured to it, until it takes place in their own backyards.
Even the most jaded, however, were jolted by the killing spree in Littleton, Colorado, when two teenaged boys mowed down twelve of their high school classmates. It prompted all of us to question the level of violence we subject our children to through movies and television, and video games that allow them to kill, hit the reset button, and kill again.
Three months later we were jolted again, when stock trader Mark O. Barton murdered his family and nine colleagues in Atlanta before killing himself.
While values were eroding and these events began to unfold, we also experienced a fundamental loss of trust and integrity. This loss is especially felt when it comes to our elected officials. During the nineties, hardly a day went by without word of some public official falling from grace. We saw President Clinton, a married man, impeached and later acquitted for having a young female intern perform sex acts on him in the Oval Office. We saw the president's cabinet secretaries-Bruce Babbitt, Ron Brown, Henry Cis-neros, Hazel O'Leary, to name a few-paraded before grand juries and judges courtesy of investigations that never seemed to end. We saw Marion Barry, mayor of the nation's capital, led out of a hotel in handcuffs after smoking crack cocaine with a female friend (who was cooperating with authorities), complaining, "The b--- set me up.'' Later we saw Barry go to jail, then come out and get elected to his old job again. We saw a Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, brought up on ethics charges. Gingrich's would-be successor, Representative Bob Livingston (R-La.), was forced to resign from office before he could ever wield the Speaker's gavel because of allegations that Livingston had had an extramarital affair. Months after he left the House, we learned Gingrich, too, had a three-year extramarital affair with a female Capitol Hill aide.
The guilt or innocence of these folks is not the issue. The fact is that we no longer trust our leaders and politicians. It has cast a pall over the many politicians doing the right things, who are working for the good of society.