Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cause Celebre

When cherry-picking culture and tradition as I do, one has the opportunity to craft a personal code that embraces only those things one deems important and worthy of dissemination. From all the years of indoctrination, the one principle of jewish tradition that resonated most strongly with me was the jewish attitude towards charity. I can think of a number of reasons for this, but the easiest one to point to is that I have been the frequent recipient of a very jewish form of charity throughout my life.

Charity is a very important part of traditional jewish life, some would argue it is the most important part, and not just any charity. A list making people (read the bible, it is full of lists) the jews of olden times made a list of ways to be charitable from least to greatest, and I am recounting them here:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

I like this list.

A lot.

And I'll explain why it is of particular significance to me. I was a scholarship student for all thirteen years of my Dalton education. I got a lot of scholarship. There would have been no other way for me to attend what is, I believe, the most expensive private school in Manhattan. I don't know whose donations put me through school, though I suspect that, through their giving, most of my friends' parents paid for my education. How nice it was, though, to be able to be a kid in a good school and not always know that it was by the grace of specific people. What a wonderful thing to not have that feeling of being beholden. I might add that this experience engendered two things: the first is that I give what I can whenever I can back to the school so that someone else can benefit and that both my brother and I have a lottery-winning pact that involves an immediate endowment of a scholarship fund.

Now what is not on this list, but is of importance to me, is giving without making a big fat deal out of it. Whether or not the recipient knows, if you are a person who gives and then broadcasts your giving in a self-aggrandizing manner (as opposed to broadcasting for the purposes of encouraging others to give as well), I find your giving to be somewhat tainted. As if you gave not because the giving itself was sustaining, but to be acknowledged for what a generous and selfless person you are. Yes, you gave, but I would call that giving grudgingly - as if the giving was a byproduct of your ego.

This little moralizing is a result of something that bothered me (I willingly admit it bothered me more than was strictly necessary) in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. There were two kinds of reactions to this tragedy (more on this later): the first was the "please donate to Haiti relief;" the second was "oh my god I am so sad about Haiti I have been upset all day my thoughts and prayers are with all Haitians we are all one planet today."

There is not a single Haitian currently buried under rubble who gives a shit about how YOU feel! This is not about YOU. Using a disaster to broadcast what an empathetic do-gooder you are is disingenuity at its worst. Shutup and pay the nice people at the Red Cross if you feel so strongly about it.

Now for the controversial part. WHY do you feel so strongly about it? An earthquake killing people in Haiti is the most normal way people have been killed in Haiti in ages. Haiti is a cesspool and has been for your entire life. Where was your sadness on Monday? Haiti is easily the worst country in our hemisphere - disaster relief isn't going to help that. Which is not to say we shouldn't contribute to disaster relief. But the outpouring of, frankly, crocodile tears over a natural disaster in a place that is a manmade disaster is unbecoming. Again, I am making a distinction between caring about the plight of the Haitians by making a donation and seeming to care about the Haitians while making it more about how much you care about Haitians.

The world can be a deeply shitty place most everywhere. The difference is that when an earthquake hits Northridge, California or Kobe, Japan, since neither of those places is a hellhole on earth, once the rubble is cleared, and the mourning finished, life in those places isn't unbearable. In two weeks or two months, once the aid agencies have left and the streets are free of rubble and body parts, Haiti will still rank among the places human beings would least like to be. I wish that we, collectively, could spend more time in between natural disasters donating our time, our money, and our well-wishing to making places like Haiti, like Sri Lanka (remember all the people who died there in a natural disaster? when was the last time you even thought about Sri Lanka?), livable. So that a natural disaster would be a temporary sadness in an otherwise decent place. We're not ever going to stop earthquakes or hurricanes or volcanoes; reacting to their impact and leading the victims to believe we give a shit on a grand scale when we only care for the duration of the news cycle, is, at best, unbecoming.

It's ok to be overwhelmed by the seemingly unsolvable problems of our age. I wish I felt there was a little more honesty in our reactions to these crises. It's ok to say, "jesus christ, I know I should do more all the time, but it's really hard. In the meantime, let's all pitch in and send a couple of bucks to the red cross. It must especially suck in Haiti right now." It's also ok to donate without fanfare, when you can, what you can, even when it's not a reaction to an immediate problem. Like I've tried to make clear, it's not like Haiti's problems are going away.

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