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The late Sam Kinison, an incomparably loud and invariably offensive comedian, once delivered a comedy routine about famine. He remarked that whenever he sees heart-rending scenes of famine victims he wonders, “How come the film crew didn’t just give the kid a sandwich? How come you never see that? What are they afraid of—that it would spoil the shot?”

His famine routine was really very funny. In a twisted way it was also trenchant. The “Camera or Sandwich” problem is a good starting point for examining any human problem. Is it better to try to collect lots of insights about many issues than to get bogged down in particular problems involving particular people?

Another way to look at it is to construct a spectrum with Mother Teresa at the end labelled “Sandwich” and Phil Donahue at the end labelled “Camera.” Donahue has examined and discussed far more varieties of social problems, trends, and issues than Mother Teresa ever will. In fact, Phil’s experience has been so vast that he felt compelled to write a book on anthropology. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be much of a theorist. She just runs around accepting personal responsibility for particular people and their problems.

Although I greatly admire Mother Teresa, I admit I live a lot more like Phil. It’s just a lot easier to be more of a Camera kind of guy.

The national debate over the quality of American education is a good illustration of the Camera-Sandwich problem. Everyone wants to hold the Camera. The same guy who couldn’t tell you what subjects his kids are currently taking in school and who hasn’t checked their homework in five years has nevertheless devised a New Curriculum for America. He will probably get appointed to a Blue Ribbon Panel. After duly quantifying the problem with dire statistics, the Panel will recommend that every school in America should be made perpetually accountable to the Panel through detailed testing.

How come nobody wants to be appointed to a classroom? Education has always been solely a matter of making Sandwiches. One solution to the national education crisis may be to round up everyone who ever wrote an article on the subject, gave a speech on it, or served on a Blue Ribbon Panel. Each of them should then be sentenced to a three-year hitch as a seventh- or eighth-grade teacher. Teach math or poetry to twelve-year-olds for a few years and then come back and tell the rest of us what works and what doesn’t. (I have already served a ten-year hitch as a high school and junior high school teacher, so cast no ironic smiles in my direction.)

Homelessness is another area where the Camera has triumphed over the Sandwich. So many people profess to be concerned about the homeless it’s a wonder that there is any problem left. With all the discussion on TV, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere you would think that more people would have reached around and just given the kid a Sandwich. I for one have never offered any public solutions to the problem of homelessness. That’s because I live in fear that someone will say to me: “Well, if you’re so concerned, why don’t you take that old wino over there back to your house?” The danger is especially acute for me because there are many mindlessly consistent people among my family and friends who undertake things just like that.

The Camera-Sandwich problem is also why nobody likes the news media. Some people think media unpopularity stems from the perception that journalists are shallow, arrogant, and ideologically estranged from the rest of America. They are, of course, but that isn’t the best reason to hate them. Instead we should hate them because those guys never make or carry any Sandwiches. They just point the Camera. They bring it into my living room and walk away. I then either have to assume some personal responsibility for the problem or Form an Opinion.

Like you, I invariably prefer to Form an Opinion. However, there is an environmental downside to opinion formation. When opinion polls suggest that the number of opinions formed has begun to mount uncontrollably, Congress then has to relieve the buildup by creating programs that Do Something About It. The rate of increase in the federal deficit is directly proportional to the rate of opinion-formation. (At least, that’s my opinion.)

Journalists then reappear at this stage of the process and cause other weak minds to Form an Opinion about why Not Enough Is Being Done. (Of course not enough is being done—the whole point of Forming an Opinion is to keep from having to actually do anything.) Increasingly, Not Enough Is Being Done about more and more problems at a rate of tens of billions of dollars per year. Then, just when it seems as if things can’t get any worse, there will be yet another idiot in a trenchcoat standing on the edge of a waste dump, a dying rain forest, or a refugee camp, pointing the Camera at yet another problem—and then walking away. After which, new opinions will begin to spring up around us so rapidly that we can almost hear the gavels falling in the committee rooms.

An even better reason to hate journalists is that we may be getting to be like them. We are all pointing the Camera and forgetting the Sandwich. If you point the Camera at enough problems you will begin to believe that there just aren’t enough Sandwiches anyway, so why bother. The result is weaker attachments to our families, our schools, our churches, our immediate communities, and each other. Meanwhile, we are getting some terrific footage of people in trouble.

Don’t get the impression that I’m about to advocate community activism and grass roots private charity. If I were to do so, you probably would then ask me how much of that sort of thing I do myself and I’m not about to let myself fall into any moral consistency traps. That’s why, for example, I don’t understand how anybody would want to be on a panel at one of those political luncheons where they talk about why the private sector ought to handle this or that social problem. They and their listeners are the private sector. If you don’t make a lot of Sandwiches after giving or applauding a speech like that, what kind of person are you? Who wants that kind of pressure?

There are probably a lot of us who would like to turn the Camera off for a while. If we can, the real question will be whether anybody remembers how to make a Sandwich. Of course, if nobody can, at least it will make for a good story when the Camera goes back on.

George A. Tobin is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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