Monday, November 14, 2005

Charity Ends At Home

What Is Charity? - New York Times

[T]he nonprofit sector has drifted from core notions of charity...Only a sliver of giving to churches is spent on social services. Last year, of the 14 gifts that exceeded $100 million, only one - a $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army from Joan B. Kroc, the widow of the founder of McDonald's - went to a human services organization, Forbes magazine says.

"In general, philanthropy seems to have stopped talking about poverty and race," said Jan Masaoka, executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, which tries to strengthen charities. Small groups still get funding, but the sector "in some ways has retreated from taking on poverty in a larger-scale, more direct way."

If there's one thing that's true, it's that people give to people because they have a personal connection to the place they're giving to, and people who have personal connections to human service organizations are not usually people with money...People who grew up in comfortable, clean, prosperous suburbs have just never had as much familiarity with how many others live.

I grew up in a clean, prosperous neighborhood and, in any case, am no great philanthropist. But I have a vivid, if perversely selective, imagination. I can't imagine being sick so I don't give a cent to "charities" concerned with health care or medical research. But I can easily imagine being poor or being a member of a visible minority. So I give the lousy little amount of money I give to: the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Fund for an Open Society and and UNICEF and these days I've had a blast giving people virtual farm animals from the Heifer Project as gifts. The the cow I gave my son and his bride as a wedding present, the pigs, goats and chickens I've given to friends, and the swarm of bees I sent to my mother-in-law go to people in developing countries who know how to deal with them.

So I just thought I'd advertise a little. I don't know how many people visit my blog, but I thought I'd put up these convenient links in case you have some disposable income. BTW the Canadian Harambee Education Society is also a terrific deal: for $340 American money you can send a girl in Kenya or Uganda through high school.

It's not virtue that drives me but the vividness of modality that comes from reading too much David Lewis, and the lively sense that these possible worlds where I'm poor and have no options are just a hair's breadth away. I go into Walmart and see the women working there at pink-collar shit jobs for minimum wage, going mad doing miserable drudge work all day and living in poverty, and it always strikes me in the most vivid way how I escaped that by the skin of my teeth and pure dumb luck--how easily I could have been one or them, or someone who couldn't even get a job at Walmart. I see beggars at freeway exits and always think of how easily that could have been me, standing there all day with a cardboard sign, bored out of my head while the cars go past blasting me with exhaust fumes, with nowhere to go, nothing to do and no way out.

I'm writing now on preference and well-being. My intuitions may be screwy but I have the vivid sense that I'm actually less well off myself because possible worlds like this are so close by. So I give money and do what I can to fix the safety nets that cushion me from those possible worlds. It's hard to explain this gut-level fear: as a tenured professor I know there's no chance I'll end up working at Walmart or begging at a freeway exit, and there is sure no way that I'm going to wake up black one day. But this is all vivid and close to me.

Monday, November 07, 2005

DNA [Daily News & Analysis] - Opinion - Why is Paris burning?

"France took many immigrants from its former colonies, especially from Algeria and several African and Arab countries and refrained from providing any state help to uphold their unique cultures. Au contraire, it frowned on any display of cultural separateness, as was evident from the banning of the hijab (and, it may be pointed out, the turban, the crucifix and several other overt religious symbols) from state-run schools. All of this sounds noble and egalitarian, but in practice, France's non-white populations have found that they have the worst of both worlds. They have neither benefited from any affirmative action, which would guarantee them some jobs, nor managed to merge with the national social, cultural, political and most important, economic mainstream. Many of them live in high-rise ghettos with pathetic living conditions and high unemployment"

Well, bravo. This piece from an Indian publication gets it right and says it succinctly.

Here's $25,000--now go away 11/06/05 - A Buyout Option For Europe's Muslims?

Well this is a weird solution: pay immigrants to go back to their native countries. Almost as good as my late libertarian friend Deane's proposal to create a moat all along the US-Mexican border with sloping tile sides and stock it with aligators.

Eventually we did come up with a solution. Anyone who wants to get into the US has to spend a year in an Assimilation Camp where they will get a crash immersion course in English and other American folkways. They will also agree to change their names and resettle in areas where jobs for which they qualify are available and no or few other members of their ethnic group live. At the end of the year they will be moved to whatever area the state deems most suitible and given every reasonable form of help in finding housing, getting jobs, and otherwise getting set up including financial assistance and child care. And, of course, make sure that they don't get hit by racism by enforcing equal opportunity and affirmative action policies.

How many immigrants would accept that deal? Try it--I'd bet virtually all.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Paris burning

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Disabled woman set on fire as Paris riots spread

I remember the long hot summers when the cities burned in the US and, after Rodney King got beaten up, I was in Whittier reading a paper at Whittier College, up the hill from LA and we could smell the smoke.

It's easy enough to understand why most people set fires, loot shops and trash the streets: it's fun and profitable. When I was at music camp, at the end of the season, I bought a 10¢ ticket for a chance to bash an old upright piano with a sledge hammer. Who doesn't want to do damage and run amok--all the better if you can get a DVD player into the bargain.

But crowds are wise. Even if individuals are just out for rape and pillage, the crowd operates according to ideological commitment and a delicate sensitivity to time, place and circumstance. Why then and there?

In the US, I think, it was impatience and thwarted idealism. We had the idea that if Jim Crow laws could be pulled down everything would immediately be fixed. Then, after the inspiring speeches, sit-ins and martyrdoms, it was business as usual. The first generation of the civil rights movements compared themselves to their grandparents and thought they'd entered into the Promised Land; the next generation compared themselves to whites and were, legitimately, outraged. And so the first generation of immigrants compare their circumstances to their lives in very poor countries and are pleased; their children and children's children look around them and expect something better.

I've always been sympathetic to the French scheme of secularism and assimilation. But it's an empirical question of how best to achieve it. Denying the reality of racism doesn't make it go away. They should certainly stop schoolgirls from wearing Muslim headscarves--not because they're religious symbols but because they're an overt display of ethnic identity. If you live in a country, you have an obligation to assimilate. But the other side of the coin is that the state has an obligation to make it feasible--and that doesn't seem to have been happening in France.

Ought implies can and if the state, whether in France or anywhere else, is seriously interested in getting minorities to assimilate it has to see that they can--by dismantling racism, and by affirmative action and other policies geared to ending discrimination.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Inappropriate Touching

Hands Across Catholic America - Should churchgoers hold hands during Mass? By Andrew Santella

Not long ago, I heard a Catholic churchgoer complaining about a wave of inappropriate touching that had spread across so many American parishes. He wasn't talking about pederast priests and the sex-abuse scandal. What he had in mind was the way many Catholics have taken to holding hands in church while they recite the Lord's Prayer...Of course, most Catholics are neither vehemently touch-feely nor vehemently traditional. I'm not a big fan of hand-holding and have even complained about it in print. To me, it smacks of enforced good cheer and saccharine singalongs. But the trouble with being against hand-holding is that it puts you in league with the church's most ultra-orthodox flat-Earthers.

Same here--though, mercifully, hand-holding hasn't gone quite this far in the Episcopal Church. Still, apart from our son's wedding last summer, I haven't been to church now for, I think 6 years.

I don't like the "horizontal dimension" in religion. I don't like the Peace, I don't like chatting in the pews before the service and I don't like running the gauntlet of ushers and greeters to get into the church.

It isn't that I'm misanthropic and it isn't that I'm afraid of germs. I am just shy: little social contacts and the protocols of friendliness stress me out. Not a lot: I've gotten used to saying hi to colleagues and minor chit chat with cashiers. But I would really rather not have it than have it: I like being private in public.

Sociability sometimes still overwelms me. I wanted to learn French--and one of the advantages of being an academic is getting to sit in on all the classes you want. But in the French II class I went to, as a pedagogical technique the instructor passed out lists of questions and had students go around to other students getting answers to the questions--a sort of scavenger hunt. I couldn't take it.

This is a really effective way to learn a language. After a summer of no French or in my case 30 years of no French, we were rusty. Then things started coming back--surprisingly. But I couldn't handle it. It might have been different if I were a traditionally-aged USD student, though even under optimal conditions I wouldn't have cared for it, but for me, as a professor, obviously older, it was just too uncomfortable. That's my quirk. I am, in this peculiar way shy. I would have stuck with it if I had to, but I didn't so I dropped the class.

What is surprising is the extent to which this kind of shyness is socially taboo--in the way that smoking or admitting that you like junk food is. It is not only shameful but, according to some, sinful. When I had a curmudgeonly letter published on Anglicans Online complaining about contemporary liturgy, the Peace and other elements of the "horizontal dimension" I was lambasted. Readers sent me emails, in some cases multiple emails condemning me as a reactionary and homophobe.

Homophobe? I suppose it's not entirely incomprehensible since social conservatives in the church have picked on liturgical revision as a symbolic issue to rally the troops. But I would bet that lots of people who had no axes to grind about same sex unions or other Red/Blue hot issues got in bed with these conservatives because they didn't like the horizontal liturgical style. After all if the guys in the pew next to me are gay, whether married in the church or not, how does it affect my church experience? What skin is it off my nose? Everything looks exactly the same.

If however I have to engage in "community" with ushers and greeters to get into the building, chit-chat with people before the service, shake hands or put up with hugs while making miserable noises about "justice, freedom and peace" that does profoundly change my church experience. Of course, ceteris paribus, I want to have enjoyable experiences and avoid stressful, unpleasant, embarrassing ones--why not?

At this point the pious, in a huff, snort "You don't go to church to get good experiences for your self" followed by a number of doctrinal claims about why one should go to church. Well, I don't buy any of them. As far as "building community" which, among the enlightened is supposed to be the purpose of church-going, if what that means facilitating little social niceties, hugging and chit-chat I can't see why this is supposed to be a religious duty. It is simply a taste that some people have and others don't have.

I suppose the idea is that friendliness is good because it spills over into altruistic behavior--that those of us who prefer using ATMs to chatting with bank tellers and find minor social interactions on the whole unpleasant are less likely to give to charity or work for social justice. But I doubt that this is so. Moreover, to the extent that friendliness and sympathy motivate altruism they seem to promote inefficient sentimentalities--sending out sympathy cards and hand-patting, taking Thanksgiving baskets to the deserving poor--rather than behavior that would be more efficient in maximizing utility, e.g. working and giving to promote the establishment of a welfare state. In any case, if what's wanted is altruistic behavior, promoting "community" is an inefficient, indirect and ineffective way to get it.

Friendliness is a taste--not a virtue much less a religious duty. And shyness isn't either a vice or a pathology but a feature of personality. I've leant how to make the appropriate noises, to act suitably in social situations, but it's something I'll never enjoy and I do not see why I should.