Few acts in our society are sheltered from critical thought more than the modern charity. Every grocery store, coffee shop, and corporate environment attempts to blend charitable giving into its sales pitch to levels more perverse than we’ve ever seen; to consume is to be moral. To work long hours under this company is moral because the company gives to charity. It is OKAY to buy more, because with every purchase you are buying yourself a small piece of a Papal Indulgence of the modern era, a free pass to the gates of cognitive dissonance.
Nothing epitomizes this outrageous hypocrisy more than Starbucks. I cannot buy a cup of coffee without it being slathered in reassurances that everything from the cup to the coffee was procured in “100% ethically sourced” farms or driven by “fair trade.” Lest we forget that “every $0.05 made goes to charity,” as if I needed a reminder that I was buying overpriced goods. The cost of feeling morally superior is now $0.05 per cup.
Given that charity is so complex I want to make it clear which portions of the charity scheme I disagree with. Here are the main types, in my view
- International Systemic Sustenance Charity (give food to the poor in Africa)
- International Temporary Charity (give food to those afflicted by natural disaster in foreign nations, immunization efforts in foreign countries, etc)
- Domestic Systemic Sustenance Charity (give food to the poor in America)
- Domestic Systemic MISC charity (NPR, PBS, donating to an orchestra, etc.)
- Domestic Temporary Charity (give domestic aid to those afflicted by domestic natural disasters)
This post is primarily about the evils of systemic sustenance charity, that is, 1 & 3. I do not care about #4, and I agree with the necessity of #2 and #5. Back to #1 and #3, charity to sustain the life of another has extreme ideological ramifications for those who give it. And that’s what I would like to talk about here.
Charity Hides Evil
I challenge my readers to find significant examples of corporations who do not attempt to pressure its managers and employees into ‘giving’ to charity under their vanguard; so that the Walmart’s and Starbucks’ of the world can take credit for acts they so desperately need validation for. Starbucks cannot change the political environment of 3rd world nations, but they can justify their participation in this broken, exploitative, one sided political world by claiming it is ‘ethical’. A disturbing omission because if their behaviors were ethical, why would they feel compelled to give to charity in the first place? If we go back only 20-30 years ago, companies who didn’t give to charity wouldn’t be given a second glance. Nothing serious has changed since then, capitalism is still the same (profit margins are still high), but socially it is clear that to not give charity is extremely negative.
But charity is not a shield. Giving to charity does not make you (or your company) morally superior, it does not make capitalism more or less ‘ethical’ and it does not afford you the justification to continue nonsensical consumption. Charity is something you buy to feel better about a world you must agree is broken. It’s as if, while you are incapable of impacting the political system of your nation, at least you can justify your way of life by sending 10 cents on every dollar you make to Africa. A form of reparations for your supposed continuous harm to the oppressed. It’s as if the slave masters wielding the whip give the slave $0.05 for every lash they deliver. Charity is therefore an admission of sin.
Charity is an excuse to perpetuate a system which you must wholly agree is unjust via the charitable act. And it is through this guise that I must argue, giving to charity and doing nothing else is a sign of a serious underlying ideological problem; clinging to two diametrically opposed thoughts which are reconciled by ‘doing your part’. They are
- I agree there exists an issue within society so broken and desperate that I need to expend my productive labor on temporarily alleviating the suffering caused by it.
- I seek to continue my way of life, within the framework of the society I exist. My way of live within this society may not be entirely moral, but it is superior to alternatives.
If you truly agree with #1, then you would not seek to continue your way of life the way it is currently. You would be driven to serious political change. That is, you would be incapable of accepting #2.
If you agree with #2 then you indeed believe there is nothing that can be done. Therefore it would be impossible to accept #1, for then you would be admitting that your world is broken and there are alternatives (give to charity!). But if it is broken and you have no willpower to change it, then is it truly broken? If you engage in #1 then clearly you believe that there are alternatives (throw money at the poor)!
And yet, most who give to charity agree with #1 and #2 simultaneously because charity has become the new orthodoxy of our era, it is an act immune from critical examination. It is an act that both affords a potential solution to underlying societal problems, and simultaneously blocks any effort to fix it because these issues are artificially hidden from public view by your donations. These donations satiate the poor and keep them quiet for another few years. But even worse than that, it makes them dependent on the giver for substance, rather than having them rise up from this oppression and take what is theirs.
Therefore I must say, those who give to charity, from a moral perspective, must be political activists. And there are some who are, that’s true, but given that around 75% of Americans claim to give to a secular charitable cause, then color me surprised when I don’t see riots in the streets of New York over America’s “fair trade” practices. Where is the political activism that charity so demands? It certainly isn’t seen in voter participation, or campaigning, or any serious local political behaviors; wake me up with local election participation is >20%.
Charity is Admission of Sin
If charity isn’t temporary solution to a serious, systemic problem as I argue it should be, then it must have some deeper meaning. I argue that charity is an ideological solution to the nearly conscious acknowledgement that your way of life is broken and all you can do, at most, is temporarily alleviate systemic suffering. To put it bluntly, to give to charity is to admit that your life causes permanent, serious damage to those living around you. It is an admission that your way of life is sinful.
We want to feel the satisfaction of knowing that every $0.05 of my $3.00 coffee goes to helping the ‘poor in Africa’ regardless of which countries that actually entails (a VERY important caveat). Because that charity action means you are doing something, it means you are ‘fighting against’ the evils of your materialistic culture. It means you are paying penance for your sins. Charity is like white guilt, a shroud that gets pulled over prior and current actions against the oppressed. This must go hand in hand with the nearly racist connotation that only white North Americans/Europeans are capable of ‘fixing’ Africa or South East Asia. To be blunt, unless you are a radical ideologue, the world is not yours to ‘fix’.
To give to charity is to say, there is a problem in our society and our fellow citizens do not agree. By sending money to help fund efforts to save stray animals in shelters, I am admitting fully that stray animals demand ethical treatment, and I am incapable of convincing others to agree. Because otherwise, where are all these stray animals coming from? The answer is obvious, my unethical, morally bankrupt, selfish countrymen. But if I say these people are unethical and evil, where is my action? I should be a PETA member, throwing blood on the disgusting attitudes of my neighbors.
By paying money to help the homeless (many of whom suffer from psychological trauma demanding treatment) outside of the vanguard of the state, I am admitting openly that this issue is so terrible and unacceptable that we simply cannot wait for a political solution to this life threatening problem. We need action TODAY! And yet, private charity for the homeless has existed since the Bronze Age. There are so few revolutions in human history hoisting the flag of the exploited poor, only the Communist and Anarchist revolutions of the 1800s took that step which so few do; putting their lives where their mouths were.
So I ask where is this uprising of action to save the urban poor we so verbally care about? Where are the riots in our streets to help the exploited, abused children? We live in a world which simultaneously claims to detest the horrors of poor children and yet still cling to the belief that their governance is acceptable.
By giving to charity you must admit that welfare (redistribution of wealth) is indeed the solution to our woes. And yet, where is the activism calling for more welfare? Welfare has existed since the beginning of civilization and there is still no consensus as to this being the solution to our woes? Giving to charity should be a radical solution to a horrible, temporary problem. Instead it has become a continuous effort to ‘stem the tide’ of a seemingly broken society (in the charity giver’s eyes). Because if society was not broken, what is the point in giving to charity?
Our ideology is a self-perpetuating world view, in the face of all its own inherent contradictions, that we desperately cling to. When we see tragedy and terror spring forth by direct relation to our own way of life, we are driven to find an explanation. Under Classical Liberalism we have a large spectrum of explanations for why the poor should remain ignored, as outrageous as Social Darwinism (the weak must suffer so the strong can be identified) to a lazy “well this is the best we’ve got.”
Because while I may never give to any charity, I will still be judged as ‘careless’ and ‘evil’ by refusing to participate in the self-atoning ritual of admitting to this natural sin. If I participated in charity, in good faith, I must become a radical, and I think this is the most perverse revelation of all. People would rather chain the poor to the floor, to be forever on their knees, rather than accept a politically active society. It is a charming image that those with faith so desperately cling to the holiness of charity, then bend the knee willingly to god. And how they pay back society with their charity is to force the poor to bend the knee to their ‘selflessness’, the poor must be appreciative of food and water they so desperately require but are incapable of earning. All so that in this pure act of ‘selfless’ anonymity, our charitable holy men/women can get closer to god by inflicting upon their gracious recipients the same chains by which they believe themselves to be bound, eternal servitude.
I find it both sickening and intriguing that perpetual submission required by god, is then forwarded to the disavowed poor, forever to submit to the religious acolytes themselves; those who seek to play god with the lives of others.
So I must conclude, if charity is done for purely selfish reasons (to make myself feel good/holy/whatever), it is evil due to ignored consequences of charitable servitude. If charity is done for purely humanitarian reasons (to save the poor) without drawing the willpower to force others to do the same, it is evil due to inaction and an admission of your own immoral lifestyle which causes this suffering.
Charity is a sin.