Saturday, October 20, 2007

Giving by Getting, Giving by Freezing

Every year about this time I find myself rather unhappily immersed in two projects: a fundraiser dinner-auction for Haiti, and a "Polar Plunge" for abused and neglected children.

Leaving aside the topic of why I should be interested in such causes, except to assure you that I am interested, I'd like to concentrate on why these fundraisers are, each in their own way, so disturbing.

The Haiti fundraiser is kind of easy to attack. Think about it. Is there anything quite so surrealistically weird as throwing a country-club soiree, with canapes and wine and dancing, to benefit Haiti? I love Haiti. It's an interesting place, pretty in some ways, with a vivid Caribbean culture and many warm-hearted and devout people. It's also rags-and-bones poor. I wonder what they'd think, the Haitians I've met, about all of us toned and Botoxed white suburbanites forking up cheesecake and outbidding each other on high-priced chotckes in an effort to correct inequality in the world? And in a way that satisfies some rich-country rubric whereby the more we lavish on ourselves, the less poor they supposedly become? I suspect they would be sensible enough to think that we were nuts, which we are. I myself am merely kind of offended, mostly by my own sheeplike participation.

I know, I know. I willingly participate in this fundraiser. I want to be decent person, doing what I can to help people who, by sheer accident of geography, seem fated to watch their children grow up hungry and sick and uneducated. And the possibilities my middle-class life give me are limited - by imagination and energy, obviously, but also by a cultural ethic that maintains the people in party clothes are the best people to solve any problem. And it does raise some money for food and medicine and housing materials that presumably the Haitians are better off for having received.


Now, the other fundraiser. In February, I'll do a forced march into Boston Harbor to become a 'Polar Bear Plunger.' That's where a bunch of people jump into the icy water for a few seconds, stagger back out of the water and then run straight inside for a scalding shower. To what end? Pledges, of course. We raise money. Money you'd think would be made available through some more appropriate social mechanism, but which isn't. Schools working with deaf kids need classroom supplies; homeless shelters for teenagers need gas for their vans. The state and federal governments, who are ultimately responsible for the very expensive care of these children, throw in some money, of course, but not enough. And so we jump in the ocean in February. Microsoft never had to do this, of course, but then, as David reminds me, Microsoft makes something people want. I remind him that agencies that turn troubled kids around are making something people want, too. And that their products are arguably more necessary to society than software upgrades.

But this bleeding-heart stuff, this quest for spiritual integrity and meaning, gets old, doesn't it? Even I'm bored by it, and I'm the one wallowing in it. If anyone has something approaching an answer, or even a reasonable insight, I'd like to hear it. Until then, I'll just consider my pangs of conscience another symptom of what Marian Wright Edelman called "affluenza."

1 comment:

Lightning Butterfly said...

Interesting. I would say that any judgement of the fundraisers you mention is a reflection of a kind of American guilt. How can we go along our merry way and have a party while the children of Haiti are starving? ( A very appropriate question.) However, In the real world every inch, every fifty cents that we can muster individually will in the aggregate make a difference when all added up. In other words, as we slog along in our stupor of self-centerd gluttony we can as a national community make a difference. Every little bit helps.
If PID had sent out a mailer they might have gotten half the amount or less than they did by letting the Americans party on down with the crab cakes.

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