As we sort through the destruction of Katrina, whole bunches of people are making all kinds of “helping” responses which inspire lots of practical and philosophical questions about how much good what is doing and who should get what kind of credit.
Some would likely respond that this is inappropriate or just useless in the midst of this great crisis, but it is not. It is always important to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Otherwise, how do you figure out what you should do?
To pick some easy ones, there are offers of help coming in from around the world, some of them notably from people obviously not friendly to us. When the Venezuelan government ie Hugo Chavez or Cuba ie Fidel Castro offer help, it obviously does not earn them any credibility. Clearly neither Chavez nor Castro gives an obese rodent’s hind quarters about US. It’s basically a big FU to our government.
Pretty easy call, Sean Penn has been out playing hero in New Orleans, boating around with his presidential historian buddy and a Rolling Stone reporter looking for people to rescue. I ridiculed his first effort, after his little boat started taking on water. “Sean Penn’s Katrina PR stunt springs a leak.” Obviously this guy’s a schmuck looking for cheap glory and pr. He’s Gabriel Byrne’s cartoonist Jack Deeb from Cool World wanting to be a ridiculous superhero.
But wait, reports now are claiming that Penn has since been out with some kind of boat, and rescued several dozen people. See? I remain skeptical of believing this. Show me. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion though that he has managed to actually rescue some people.
That still doesn’t change the judgment. Even if his PR stunt actually worked, he’s still not getting any credit from me. The basic schmuckness of seeking glorification like this doesn’t change even if you manage to do some good.
Further though, if he really is just trying to help out, then he won’t WANT credit. He’s just worried about The Children, after all. He would surely be embarassed to have people carrying on about what a great guy he is. That’s why he’s got a boatload of reporters with cameras to document his humility. Not sure where he’s putting the actual flood victims.
I’m much more willing to give credit to Macy Gray. She just showed up (by herself) at the Astrodome in Houston where flood victims are staying, strapped on a Red Cross vest and went to work. No photographers, or cheap glorification, just jumping physically into some grunt work. That looks to me much more like really just trying to help out.
Even that’s controversial, though. One of the most serious minded people I know is my godson’s mother. Considering Macy doing grunt work vs Celine Dion talking Katrina with Larry King, the Thug’s Ma said:
The point is not what you’re doing to make your-celebrity-self feel better — but what can you do that will make the biggest difference.
Celine Dion — as much as she makes me shudder — and other celebrities are good for creating awareness and encouraging people to donate. It’s a “if you love Celine, you’ll give money” kind of thing.
When I was 13, I remember giving money to Jerry’s Kids because Frank Sinatra asked “me” to when he performed on the telethon. You know me, I’d do anything to make Frank happy.
If rich people want to give, then they should pony up the cash, and leave the grunt work to the grunts.
Macy and the rest would be way better off scheduling a big concert and contributing all the proceeds to evacuees.
Or doing free ads for World Vision or the Red Cross. Something to get people to contribute. If they want to help, then they should give themselves away in the way that will have the biggest impact.
They should do what they can within their area of expertise.
Now, she does make a pretty good case there in favor of some celebrity charity work. It’s where they can do the most good.
But it also gets at the question of what is or should be motivating people. Generally, I’m not a big believer in altruism. As a practical philosophy, Henry Ford’s self-interest did a thousand times more good in the world than Mother Theresa’s charity work. Plus, altruism in the true sense simply goes against human nature. It is natural that we’re thinking first of ourselves and our own.
Proper charity as I understand it is ultimately a selfish motivation borne from empathy. I don’t do things to help others generally in contradiction to my own interests, but to further them. I feel for someone in a bad situation, and I can’t stand to see them suffer. I feel better to see that poor homeless dude eating a sandwich. That does me more good than spending the five bucks on a drink at the bar for myself.
In addition to being more consistent with the realities of human nature, this way of looking at things allows you to set priorities and escape useless, unearned guilt. Doing something for someone because you want to rather than out of a sense of absolute obligation to help anyone and everyone in need just works better.
Thus, I feel more inclined to help people directly, one to one rather than dropping money in the Salvation Army kettle. You might say that I like to see exactly what I’m getting for my money. Knowing that this particular poor guy has a warm coat cause I just handed it to him certainly does more for me than mailing somebody a check.
Likewise, I can really see Macy feeling bad and wanting to help. Spending a couple of days helping sort donations for the Red Cross might well do her soul some good.
In theory, the Thug’s Ma is probably right that she’d really do much more good for the displaced by giving a benefit show or two rather than fooling with grunt work. You can easily see though why the very direct feeling of putting a cup of soup in their hands would do her as the giver more good. Perhaps someone a rung or two up from Macy on Maslow’s hierarchy toward full self-actualization would roll past this, and take their satisfaction from the more abstracted knowledge that their talents are better used in a less direct way.
Even as that would apply to me personally, the biggest part of the worst need in the world isn’t here at home in Indiana. My hands on things might help a few folks, but it’s not going to do a thing for the really bad situations in the world. Starving and diseased Africans need the help worse than a few down on their luck locals. On the other hand, the closer the giving is to home, the more I know that it’s actually accomplishing something.
I just know that low key, direct personal aid seems far more spiritually pure than starring in a telethon, or just writing a check. Then again, my spirituality and $2 will get a Katrina victim a cup of coffee at Starbucks.