Saturday, 10 March 2012

The quality of mercy

The dust-up over the Kony/Uganda child soldiers video is a great opportunity to review our culture’s increasingly weird attitudes toward charitable giving. Are the videographers heroic crusaders cleverly tapping social media for a good cause, or are they self-indulgent, neo-colonial exploiters engaging in an updated version of White Man’s Burden? Something in between or a little bit of both?

The grandmother in Isabel Allende’s wonderful early book The House of the Spirits says, ‘We don’t give alms to help the poor but to make ourselves feel better. The poor don’t want charity; they want justice’. Or words to that effect, but in any case a bracing corrective to facile do-gooderism.

Which is not to say that worthy ‘charities’, broadly defined, should shrivel up and die or that we should stop making donations to them. It does point us in the right direction when doing so, however, i.e., towards making a difference in people’s lives rather than satisfying our own temporary discomfort in the face of human misery. I say ‘in the face’ because the cheapest, most cynical nonprofit hustlers inevitably push unpleasant images there precisely to make us feel bad and cough up the cash, as in my latest favorite, Foreign Child with Harelip. They are the institutional equivalents of beggars who display their scaly stumps on street corners so that you’ll give them a dollar.

How a society organizes and promotes charitable giving is never ideologically neutral. For starters, we have to ask why a given activity should be handled by private parties rather than the state. In my Chile days one would constantly be invited to benefits for a poor family whose child had an expensive disease and needed some unimaginable amount of money to pay for treatment. Of course, under Pinochet poor people couldn’t get decent medical care for anything other than a nosebleed, so the whole block had to sell brownies and hot dogs for a month if a kid got leukemia. But this state of affairs resulted from political decisions by the country’s rulers, who openly served the well-to-do. One donated but knew that in a sane world such campaigns would not need to exist.

Sudden emergencies were a different matter, but even in those cases the lack of perspective was notorious. I recall the fund-raising activities that enjoyed official backing after the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s when the TV news was full of heart-rending pictures of African babies on the verge of starvation. Chileans dutifully attended and put in their coins, but when interviewed had no clue about Hutus, Tutsis, or what country it was all happening in. ‘I don’t know anything about all that, but I just feel terrible when I see those poor children’, said one lady typical of those forking over their donations.

I recall her comments to this day because she didn’t realize she was giving money to the perpetrators of the genocide who ran the Hutu refugee camps that were the beneficiaries of that collection. I only knew because the Hutu priests in charge openly blamed the Tutsi victims for what had happened in later interviews.

Meanwhile, Chilean supermarkets had initiated the practice—now common here among the big chain stores—of asking people at the cash register to donate their change to the company’s favorite charity. In Chile this was often Catholic anti-abortion groups or other dubious entities. You were made to feel cheap and heartless if you refused to let them take your pennies for forwarding to these outfits, and not incidentally the whole exchange made you forget that you had just paid your hard-earned money to the company, which came off as the good guys, oh-so-concerned about human welfare and not, perish the thought, crude material gain.

This is now S.O.P. at Duane Reade, Staples and probably a ton of other stores that I do not patronize. I’ll bet the tobacco companies are furious they didn’t think of it first: ‘Five cents off the price of every pack of Camels goes to help orphan children in Zimbabwe!’

The Susan G. Komen breast cancer scandal of a couple weeks ago is another good example of the politics of philanthropy. Who not directly involved in that world would have suspected that this eminently inoffensive-sounding operation housed a crew of ambitious businesswomen eager to please their corporate backers by stiffing Planned Parenthood? By their historic goof, they ripped the lid off their own hidden agenda.

Unfortunately, finding a place to send our charitable dollars that will use them as we intend is not an easy task. But if we just want to feel good for a couple of minutes, anywhere will do.

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