As if to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most bitterly disappointed presidential campaigns in history, George McGovern, three-term South Dakotan Senator and one-time Democratic presidential candidate, has attempted a return to the public eye. With thirty more years of public service under his belt, McGovern is still preaching his homespun brand of populism, only now with an internationalist twist. McGovern, the author of two previous books, has recorded in his latest literary effort reflections on the ur-issue of humanitarian idealism: the enduring crisis of world hunger.
In The Third Freedom (the title comes from FDR’s 1941 inaugural address in which hunger was the third of four universal freedoms America would work to ensure) McGovern first sets out to neutralize those cynics who will scoff at his enormous project. He perceives nothing inevitable about the predicament of hunger and undertakes his optimistic project with the enthusiasm of a Miss America contestant responding to the world-issue question. Banishing hunger from the earth, he says, is not only possible, but in fact obligatory, especially now that civilization has the necessary tools and knowledge for the project.
Not unlike Bill Clinton, a Middle American of similarly humble origins, McGovern has a knack for the rhetoric of policy. It allows him to fare better than most Miss America candidates at fortifying idealism with concrete strategies for reform. But it doesn’t make his proposals viable.
McGovern would like to see the establishment of global food reserves and the expansion of supplemental nutrition programs into the developing world. Citing the reaction series beginning with trans-border water squabbles and ending with war, human displacement, poverty, and famine, he suggests the UN launch a new program devoted to water conservation. McGovern has always had a soft spot for the school lunch program and proposes globalizing the American innovation. The centerpiece of McGovern’s agenda is a worldwide Farmers Corps, a kind of agricultural Peace Corps, which would send American farmers abroad to redeem the technologically-benighted Third World. Or so it appears in McGovern’s messianic concept.
Most of this seems like common sense, so why didn’t someone think of it before? Because while good ideas for hunger relief is never in short supply, the will for international agreements is. Attempts to respect ideals of group consensus and national autonomy sterilize or dilute most good ideas. McGovern will not be around for the materialization of his preferred new world order; it is too much of an affront to inertia, the only real protocol in the implementation of far-reaching humanitarian initiatives.
Yet McGovern, now the US Ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome, helpfully reminds us that the UN is still the principal player in the global fight against hunger. He offers a ringing endorsement of the three hunger-relief agencies: the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He is silent about these agencies’ failures, such as late and insufficient responses to the Sahel crisis of the 1980’s, to the nutritional fiasco of sanctions-laden Iraq, and to the chronic deprivation in countries that have turned to Islamic fundamentalism for food and security.
The most interesting and controversial chapter contains McGovern’s virtually unqualified endorsement of biotech. He joins those Green Revolutionaries and industrial biologists who portray enemies of genetic engineering as short-sighted foes of the third world who will actually kill people out of misguided concern for them. McGovern offers no response to the criticisms that genetic engineering may disrupt the natural growth of crops and that long-range results in our bodies cannot be foreseen. But he warns, like a true New Dealer, that sitting on the fence is not an act of prudence, but a moral liability.
McGovern’s style, like his politics, is a mix of homespun earnestness and bonhomie. He professes a bucolic reverence for the land and those who till it. “When you meet an American farmer,” McGovern advises, “remind him of this truth: the American farmer is the most important person in the world.” One part Pindar (without the lyricism) and two parts William Jennings Bryan (without the millenarianism), McGovern’s prose seems at times a misguided attempt to resurrect pastoral style from the dustbin of literary history.
Yet there is hollowness to McGovern’s approach that no amount of earnestness can avail. He is too comfortable with bureaucracy. Where other people see intractable problems, McGovern sees potential programs. He merrily conceives of a global brotherhood of farmers lending a helping hand to farmers, but what it really signifies is a profusion of offices and bureaucrats and vast oceans of aimlessly floating memoranda.
McGovern recognizes that the solution to world hunger lies down a road bricked with political goodwill, compromise, and above all, peace. It is estimated, we are told, that over 15% of hungry people are afflicted because of wartime disruptions in food production and distribution. Then McGovern presents dubious statistics to place a price on the problem: $8 billion, to be exact. He implies that money is the answer; once we realize that the economic cost of world hunger is twice that, at $16 billion (per one World Bank estimate), we can act accordingly and so rescue the impoverished masses. McGovern should know better. Throwing money at a problem without attending to underlying causes often results in wasted cash.
Indeed, bad politics have always been the vicious handmaiden of poverty. McGovern’s idealism comes up woefully short in addressing how the solution to hunger does not lie merely in asking the nations of the world to throw their resources in a collection plate (which itself is no bargain – the U.S. alone is many millions in arrears). It doesn’t really matter that a typical food ration of cornmeal, vegetable oils, beans, peas, and lentils can be delivered for only 12.5 cents a day. The problem is one of matching supply with demand when governments crumble, shells are launched across the countryside, and corruption reigns. Any reform agenda without massive political restructuring on it will be a very slow shuffle down the road of improvement.
At the end of 160 pages the reader will be well-steeped in mildewed liberalism. Entrenched in old ideologies, McGovern wavers between the equally precarious frontiers of empty hopefulness and policy prescriptions whose logistics are difficult to comprehend, let alone put into effect. The bureaucratize-and-conquer approach may have worked in the New Deal, it may have worked in the Great Society era, but here it rings like a cracked bell. McGovern’s “architecture of food security” becomes the architecture of global officialdom.
McGovern’s book fails for the same reason he failed as a candidate in ‘72: his politics are not really viable. Most liberals will find his proposals uninspiring, and see in them an updated version of containment ideology, according to which bureaucracy and a paternalistic Western agenda are propagated across the globe to combat some monolithic evil. Neoliberals will demur and insist on their own austere, individualistic, trickle-down strategies, and conservatives will choke on the idea of an international welfare state. McGovern’s humanitarianism may sound like the elevator music of political correctness, but it will hardly seem innocuous to its critics.
The Third Freedom is not an extraordinary book, but it is certainly extraordinary that any man’s ideals could be so intact after having endured the pounding of the 1972 election, forty years in public office, and decades of reactionary insinuation about the pinkness of his persuasions. Unfortunately, McGovern’s devotion to the cause is hardly a counterpoise for a mostly uninspiring litany of policy prescriptions. Just as populism sells politicians but pacifism doesn’t (something McGovern might have learned in 1972) fresh ideas sell books and good intention doesn’t. His bureaucracy-as-messiah methodology resembles the politics of a bygone era, and his trusty steed of communitarian materialism has him tilting at one too many windmills. Instead of making a comeback, the South Dakotan whistles his Arcadian tune back into oblivion.