Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Proxy effort

Posters from WW-II urge civilians to save oil and buy bonds, but draw distinction between "Go across" and "come across". The fighters are still the fighters; the civilians are supporting them. More recent campaigns urge us to "fight" by giving to this effort or that. We "fight a war on poverty" with taxes. The language makes us front line fighters now.

For those of us old enough to remember, when our proxies landed on the Moon it felt as though a little bit of us was there with them. And I not infrequently hear people talk of some scientific discovery as something "we" have learned. I don't object at all--they pay us to explore on their behalf and I'm glad for the opportunity. But what here is a harmless expression of solidarity seems more like an excuse for not committing elsewhere.

OK, Louis XIV said that "it is the last piece of gold that wins" a war, but there's still no equivalence in effort between giving up new shoes to provide that last piece of gold and marching out to get shot at.

Rachel Jones said about caring people:

"A significant challenge for nonprofits and ministries remains recruiting people who will commit to serve long-term outside the United States."

"I know there are a plethora of good reasons that concerned American Christians can't just uproot and leave the States, from family to health to finances. I know I simplify. But I have a theory about what is partly contributing to the dearth of young Americans willing to spend their lives on behalf of others."

"They think they already are."

Minor financial adjustments such as buying fair trade coffee, and writing letters about safe working conditions at supplier factories are considered "being part of the fight": Words, and relatively painless giving will do the job. Maybe changes in fashion and minor financial pressures will translate into big social changes somewhere across the world. Maybe. We should do what good we can. But I think Jones may be right that we delude ourselves into thinking we're doing something important for the poor when most of us aren't. I'm not doing anything important. We give to a few charities and the church, and now and then I split half a sandwich with one of the beggars at the capitol square, but that doesn't make me one of the "poverty fighters." It isn't much help at all.

I'm starting to converge on a theory that helping the homeless is more a matter of relationships: community to individual, with expectations and a completely new environment. Change in the hat is symbolic at best, but if we think we're "fighting poverty" we may be satisfied with that. More thought and research needed... First approximation model for caring for the homeless looked like "spending a couple of months in a monastery", which isn't very practical.

We're pretty good at befuddling ourselves with words. Back in the early 70's a member of a Dutch squatter group proudly announced that he was a productive member of society: he kept tabs on police malfeasance (as defined by him). Maybe the role is necessary (though given the benign reputation of the Dutch police I suspect he was deluding himself), but it isn't productive. We probably all saw the full-page ad in which Cindy Crawford told us she was fighting some disease or another just by posing there. (I can't find the image.) Who knew disease research was that easy?

Not all of us, or perhaps even many of us, are called to dramatic work. If we tell ourselves that we're heroes for buying more expensive coffee it can't make it easier to hear the call to do something serious.

"Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good"


Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent line of thought, and I will link. Some thoughts.

The Romanian doctor/pastor who founded and ran the orphanage and medical clinic we went to a few times gave up even bothering to ask European churches to send people and help. "Only Americans and Canadians will come."

Also, I have long noted that Democrats say they will fight for you, while Republicans say they will work for you. (Both claims are less than fully true, but I note the difference in mentality.)

Many environmentalist gestures are of practical value, serving only as a sort of religious ritual - most recycling falls into this category, for example. Causes do well in one sense if they can give you a cheap buy-in. That is, the cause will continue to have supporters and prominence, because the nickel-givers have an interest in that. Yet in another sense, they then start preventing people from doing good things of real value, if they don't fit the symbolism. I think many Christian causes would fit in here.

I agree that the positive-thoughts level of charity may be pernicious because it prevents the actual relationships of charity. It feels better, because we think we are helping thousands and millions of people - we aren't - rather than the one or two within reach.

I also.

james said...

I hadn't been thinking of the cheap buy-in aspect. It's self-defeating, but so tempting an approach...

God have mercy on us all.