“A thousand points of light? Is that some kind of eastern thing?”
He got 100 cool points for this witty quoting from The Big Lebowski, but then lost them for not getting the reference to the first President Bush. Points of light had been big, a meme right up there with kinder, gentler.
“Don’t you remember 1989?”, I ask. “A thousand points of light?”
“It sounds familiar,” he says tentatively.
It all sounds familiar, I’ll grant you. With him, I was less generous.
“Well, nevermind, you won’t get the joke unless it does more than ring a bell. You’d have to know something of the context.”
“You could explain it, instead of pouting, perhaps?”
Okay, this was charming. Evenness of temperament with backbone. This was mastery of another kind. But he was still wrong. I couldn’t explain without pouting.
“It’s not a joke anymore when you have to explain. It’s a lesson. I don’t want to play teacher now. I want to be a comedian. You know, like Lenny Bruce.”
There are a thousand points of failure in any conversation. I had found one. And I wouldn’t let go.
In a classroom, in the daylight, for an old friend, I could’ve explained my thousand points of failure quip. Could’ve explained my satire of dismantling public infrastructure to rely instead on individual charity for the social safety net as akin to engineering in as many points of failure as possible.
Not that I don’t respect the power of individuals to make a difference. Each point is a possibility of failure, not a promise of it. But moving social welfare out of the public sphere, off the slate of collective, national priorities is a major shift in course. In an age where everything important is handled by experts, what are we to make of the importance of jobs left to domestics? Left to the private, household economy (oikos)? Apparently, that tending the young, old, sick, and poor are below-the-line, after-profit, expenses.
It seems disingenuous to forget that New Deal reforms, not Rockefeller-style philanthropy, saved the free world from the depression. At least that’s the story I got growing up. Sure, laissez-faire capitalism, the Satanic Mills, 18-hour workdays, unfettered monopolies, and all that, had threatened democracy. But Upton Sinclair, labor unions, and FDR’s reforms restored the balance, making the world safe again for unprecedented economic growth.
Today, when “unions” and “welfare-state” are dirty words to so many, I wonder how effectively a charity-net of a thousand points of light can weather the vicissitudes of boom and bust.