Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2005/ 26 Teves 5765
The weird wielding of charity
Norway's Jan Egeland started it with his remark that America is stingy, or words to that effect, focusing on the early U.S. response to Southeast Asia's tsunami victims.
Since then, competitive caring has taken off around the globe as nations vie to display and measure their greater virtue.
There are surely worse things to get in a heat about. Who gives more? Who cares more? Who among men, which among nations, is most charitable? Dollar by dollar, Americans are having to match their worldly weight in gold. No thin task, that.
All will be sorted out in due course, though Americans, who in 2003 gave $241 billion to charity, hardly can be called tightwads. I gave at Amazon, by the way. Is there a bumper sticker at the printer's yet? Amazon clients like me, who push the "Pay now with 1 click" bar like lab rats self-administering cocaine, got to click likewise for tsunami victims.
It was so easy that Amazon raised some $6 million in 48 hours. By Thursday, the total was $14,668,100.42. (Who gave 42 cents?) In a quick sidebar, the (American) engineering miracle of the Internet is just starting to exert its influence as a channel of charity. A click of the mouse and Internet travelers can direct funds straight to the recipient.
And willingly, many do. Which is point one in this weird corruption of Samaritan mercy. Charity is a voluntary act, and thus is considered a channel to grace, rather than a tax on competence or hard work (and sometimes luck) to redistribute wealth to those less lucky. And in some cases, less competent or less ardent.
The compulsive need to calculate and compare can be a distracting affliction in individuals. Among nations, it is merely bad form. Measuring charity as a political gauge robs the result of its noble intent and the giver of his just reward the gift of giving.
Generosity comes easily to Americans. The spirit of giving is part of our genetic makeup. "There but for the grace of G-d go I" is tattooed on our hearts. Such that already Americans have donated or pledged more than $200 million through various organizations.
And this charitable tsunami has just begun, bringing me to point two. How come Americans are so likely to give? Because we can, of course, but how come that? Because we are uniquely blessed with systems, institutions and freedoms that permit us to seek and secure wealth. And then, in a spirit of noblesse oblige, to repay our debt of gratitude by sharing the bounty.
Yet Americans are reviled. No wait, therefore we are reviled. But so goes human nature. It is the common fate of large dogs to be yipped at by Chihuahuas.
I realize I'm dizzyingly close to committing heresy here by hinting at American exceptionalism, but there it is. As other nations criticize the United States for not doing enough, it is crucial to note that without what the United States is a nation of free peoples and free markets there could be no commentary about what the United States does, whether too much or too little.
We also might note that there are no such debates in the countries now awaiting our gifts. I must have missed the video announcing Osama bin Laden's charitable contribution to the injured Muslim peoples who populate much of the land devastated by the tsunami and whom he purports to represent.
Not that al-Qaida hasn't been busy in many of the affected countries. Indeed, bin Laden's minions have been training new operatives in Malaysia and practicing their lethal skills in Thailand. Yet the United States is the Great Satan.
The U.S. military arrives with food, clothing, medical supplies, ships and troops to clean up what nature has put asunder, while al-Qaida looks for new recruits to self-destruct in the name of Allah.
They'll need them, because what the United States is also delivering is information that is both damaging to bin Laden and much needed in that part of the world. The inner message of the tsunami and its aftereffects is what good comes from people blessed with freedom.
In the process of exporting goods, services and the charity of a generous people, we are also exhibiting the bounties of Democracy, without which charity is a hope rather than a deed.
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