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Posts Tagged ‘charity’

Learning Sympathy

Appeals to our sympathy are everywhere: late-night commercials on behalf of orphans overseas, envelopes bearing pleas from disaster-relief organizations, magazine ads asking help to ease the suffering of piteous (though cute) humans and animals, campus solicitors recruiting students to spend a summer in Central America or Kenya building latrines or conducting AIDS education, and so on.

Source: PETA

Source: PETA

Giving is so popular that companies ride the sentiment. Bono’s “Product Red” campaign channeled a percentage of sales by firms such as Nike and Dell to fight AIDS. Recently, Dignity Health, a huge, nonprofit hospital system, cloaked itself in a “humankindness” campaign, hellohumankindness.org. Humankindness.org was already taken.

That humanitarian appeals tend to work is not a given of human nature. They work because we moderns have learned to sympathize with the suffering of others as far away as the Congo and as strange as leatherback turtles. Our feelings are the products of a humanitarian sensibility that has risen in the last couple of centuries. We, the Western bourgeois, became more sympathetic as we became more sensitive and sentimental.

…. The rest of the post continues as my column in the Boston Review.

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The Giving Nation?

The Page Family Foundation, funded by Google co-founder and philanthropist Larry Page and his wife Lucy, recently announced that it would cover flu shots for all 4- to 18-year-olds in the San Francisco Bay Area. “For some children, the cost of a flu shot could be prohibitive, so Larry and Lucy want to remove that obstacle,” said a Foundation representative.

This is a generous act of Christian …. er, sorry, Larry … of tzedakah in this Holiday Season. The Page gift is an example of what is so wonderfully charitable about America. And it is, at the very same time, also an example of what is so frustratingly inequitable about America.

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Caring More or Less

“Should there be a pauper among you . . . you shall not harden your heart and clench your hand against your brother the pauper. But you shall surely open your hand to him . . . .” (Deut. 15:7-8; Alter trans.). A recurrent question about modern America is to what extent we have adhered to this and similar admonitions to care for “the least of these.”

The question is prompted by a new book from Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age. Newman and Jacobs present evidence that now widely-hailed parts of the safety net woven during the New Deal (particularly poor relief,  job creation, and old age support) and then during the Great Society (particularly Medicare and poverty programs) at the time faced considerable public ambivalence and even resistance. Roosevelt and Johnson just drove ahead anyway and later Americans were thankful that they did. One implication is that today’s backlash against the Obama health initiative is nothing new.

Another implication is that Americans’ caring for the “least” among them was not much more enthusiastic 50 or 80 years ago than it is now. Had Newman and Jacobs looked back farther back in time, they would have only reinforced their argument. It has always been hard for Americans to meet those religious injunctions.

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Sentimental Journey

Page through most general magazines or flip through cable television and you are likely to see several ads like the one here by World Vision, featuring Jeopardy’s host, Alex Trebek, and a cute orphan girl. (I should note that World Vision indeed does good works.) These ads, sometimes with pictures of disfigured or suffering children, are meant to draw your sympathy and compassion  – and then your money or time. They work because they arouse  sentimentality – “tender emotions.”

That such ads work is not a given of “human nature.” They work because their audience has learned sentimentality – to feel the melancholy of suffering, sympathy,, and compassion – even for people so far away and so different from the audience as orphans in Africa.

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