Steve Nelson: Charity Is Not the Same as Social Justice
Get over yourselves, fellow Americans. We are not such good people.
You’ve doubtless read about or seen the story of “Batkid,” the 5-year-old California boy with leukemia (in remission, thank goodness). The boy, Miles Scott, was selected by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a most remarkable Batkid experience in San Francisco. He fought evil, rescued a damsel in distress, thwarted robberies and kept an entire city safe for a day. Dressed to the Bat-nines, the tiny lad was driven from one heroic feat to the next in a Lamborghini with Batman decals and hundreds of eager reporters in tow.
Thousands, from far and wide, lined the streets to cheer his brave exploits and ... feel undeservedly good about themselves. According to a USA Today report, “ Daniela Vilchis-Lent, 18 ... came from Oakland with five relatives, some as young as 2, to cheer Batkid on. ‘If my taking a little time to be here helps him, then I’m glad to do it.’” Tweets and emails from across America served to include hundreds of thousands in the day’s events. Millions more watched the Batty proceedings on broadcast and cable television. A week later, the story was still being reprised in all major media.
I don’t begrudge Miles Scott or his family their day of pleasure. I’m sure he and they have suffered a great deal. Nor do I mean to attack Vilchis-Lent, who was evidently drawn to the Bat-fest for some reason vaguely related to compassion.
But this Batkid spectacular is an example of the illusion of a “good” society. As with the saccharine stories of Good Samaritans on the nightly news or the yellow ribbons tied on trees to empathize with each small American tragedy, we hoodwink ourselves into feeling exceptionally virtuous. Like Vilchis-Lent, we seem to believe that showing up to watch a 5-year-old in a Lamborghini is fulfilling our part of the social contract. Just watching on television is good enough for most. Recliner empathy.
We mourn each other’s lost cats, hold rallies for beached dolphins, create national campaigns for missing blond girls and display rich varieties of colored “ribbons” on our car bumpers. We endlessly celebrate our strength and decency with sentimental anecdotes on the evening news.
But charity is not justice, and the conspicuous glare of charity is blinding us to injustice.
This blurring of the distinction between charity and justice is particularly evident in our admiration for the generosity of the wealthiest Americans. Several weeks ago, 60 Minutes on CBS carried a fawning story on The Giving Pledge, the Gates/Buffett club of billionaires who promise to (eventually) give away at least half of their money. I suppose it is better they give some away than simply spend it on more luxuries or keep the wealth in the family. But the trickle of philanthropy from these massive fortunes is cathartic, not curative.
As we lionize the rich, little attention goes to the unjust economic policies that allowed such massive wealth accumulation by so few and the deep trenches of poverty left in the wake of their business practices. Some of this “philanthropy,” most notably that of billionaire Peter Peterson, is dedicated to keeping the poor in misery. Peterson spends hundreds of millions to lobby for the evisceration of Social Security and against government support for the least privileged. Some charity that is! Most billionaire philanthropists support only those things they believe important, as I suppose they are entitled to do. In addition to Peterson’s political “philanthropy,” Eli Broad and Bill Gates are supporting an educational reform agenda that promises to end public education as we know it. Thomas Monaghan (Domino’s Pizza) spends his dough supporting Catholic education and conservative social causes, particularly attacking women’s reproductive rights. The mega-rich Koch brothers (not Giving Pledge members) have used their “charity” to set back social progress several centuries, including using their billionaire bullhorn to drown out Cassandra’s call to save our planet from climate disaster.
It is only fair to note that many of The Giving Pledge’s members support social causes dear to my own heart and keep arts institutions alive as government funding shrinks. But a compassionate civil society cannot be sustained on the conditional, selective largesse of plutocrats. Quite to the contrary, their charity, like the feel-good example of Batkid, creates an illusion of benevolence that enables the relentless spread of poverty and injustice.
While thousands line the streets cheering for Batkid, Congress cuts funding for the National Institutes of Health, including for leukemia research. While Americans collect food to provide a decent Thanksgiving meal for a few homeless families, we stand idly by as our Congress prepares to cut food stamps, dropping millions more children into desperate hunger. We festoon our cars with “Support Our Troops” bumper-stickers and say nothing as the political right proposes cuts to Social Security, military pensions and veterans’ disability benefits.
The rate of poverty in America is shameful and getting worse. Schools in the least privileged neighborhoods are underfunded and overcrowded. Young black men are incarcerated at a rate that would make the world’s worst despots proud. The Earth is overheating. Every index of societal health is declining.
Batkid can’t rescue us from these self-inflicted wounds.
Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.