Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Poverty of the Charitable Celebrity

[From the Akron Food Not Bombs occasional newsletter Free Soup, volume 2, issue 2, April/May 2007.]

Just recently, a billionaire named Warren Buffet gave all his fortune away. Well, not directly to poor people hanging out on the streets, of course! That would too dramatically upset the class system we live in. No, he gave it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where the money would be doled out on the basis of well-crafted grant proposals, distributed to well-intentioned but well-paid non-profit executives, and eventually those who could better use the money.

Then there was a Newsweek magazine cover which featured a story about charitable celebrities—with movie star Brad Pitt in the middle of the photo. Just what Brad Pitt needs... Another magazine bearing his photo! Poor guy, we should all feel sorry for him and thank him for all that he does. Right?

Our culture is obsessed with famous, wealthy people like Buffet and Pitt (as well as those celebrities who don't give a penny to anyone else). We shower them with praise for their selfless charity, their ego-less giving, their unending caring for the less fortunate. You’ve probably heard countless liberals speak praises for these people, as if they and they alone will save us from our downward trajectory as a society. Angelina Jolie cares for the children of poor countries! Bono wants to relieve poor country's debt! Pamela Anderson wants to save the tortured animals!

There is, as always, some merit in otherwise misdirected sentiments like these. For our hero/heroine-worshiping culture, celebrities can serve as a “gateway” for people's activism. Perhaps by Bono discussing the debt which the World Bank and IMF have strapped the Global South with will lead a few hundred—or perhaps more—people into campaigning to drop the debt (and maybe even pay reparations!). How many young activists today had their eyes opened by the music of Rage Against the Machine, Against Me!, and Fugazi or hip-hop groups like Public Enemy, The Coup, or dead prez? These musicians not only speak about their politics, but also lived them (unlike many liberals who just talk a lot, but don't walk the walk).

Famous celebrities talking about issues can bring greater attention to them. Bono is a good example of this. Also, celebrities sometimes use their popularity (however fleeting) to engage such issues. For example, the British band Chumbawamba was perceived by many as “one hit wonders” although they'd been around for years engaging in anarchist politics and music. Their popular song “Tub Thumping” made them famous overnight and thrust them onto talk shows, where they debated important issues, argued for anarchism, and even ended a live TV performance chanting “Free Mumia!”

And, of course, when celebrities donate money, especially rich celebrities, it is a form of wealth-redistribution. And that's a good thing. More rich people (in fact all of them) should give most of their money away, all the time. That's a grand idea!

So, it’s easy to sympathize with all who want to make the world a better place. We do too. We also sympathize with those who feel that giving money to charity organizations will help to do this. It sometimes can. Many celebrities who give money (whether in large or small sums) actually do care about the causes they support. Yet, just because we can sympathize with the sentiment and the motivation, does not mean this is the best way to create positive social change.

Celebrity charity is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the only reason why any of this is note-worthy is because they're famous. So what? If Susan Sarandon gives a thousand dollars to a charity is that more meaningful than anyone else giving the same amount? (By the way, Sarandon is a lot more humble about this kind of thing and wouldn't use it to further her career; she puts her body into action more than her pocketbook.) When we talk about them, we're just reinforcing this cult of personality. We affirm that the lives of the famous are more noteworthy than our own.

Second, rich people can give so much more than the rest of us—does that make them more worthy of praise and respect? If any of us had more money, we could also easily give comparable amounts. So, what's the big deal? They can only give such large newsworthy sums because they've reaped such incredible salaries, proceeds, sponsorships in the past. In fact, their wealth is itself suspect—most large salaries are made in ways that exploit not only less powerful people working to support them, but also the consumers of pop culture who pay through the nose to be “entertained”.

Third, by worshiping celebrity charity, we neglect the day-to-day heroes in our midst. Many people who will probably never receive wide spread recognition for the unending work they do to transform society (even on a small, local level) into a better place for all. Think about all the time your peers spend talking about TV shows they've seen—that's time wasted they could spend talking about stuff that's happening in their backyard. There's likely a toxic landfill, heaps of political corruption, a war profiteering corporation, and underfunded education somewhere in your community. Why don't we take note of all the real things going on that are good and the normal everyday people doing them, and stop distracting ourselves with crap that ain't real?!

Fourth, contributing to large, wealthy, (even if liberal) charities ain't gonna solve any problems. When Buffet gave his billions to Bill Gates' foundation, he gave it to an organization with incredible fiscal overhead. It's got its own building, paid staff persons, millions at its disposal for propaganda, errr, “public relations”, and so forth.

A rule of thumb to follow: if a “charity” is rich enough (or perhaps misdirected enough) to send glossy full-color brochures and books in the mail to attract us, or can afford teams of call centers to solicit donations over the phone, then they're wasting their money. If you give $10 to an organization that spent as much money on literature and envelopes mailed out (most of which will not result in a donation, by the way), then all the donation goes for is to reimburse that organization for its marketing costs. The best, most efficient and effective organizations are the ones who don't have the time to be soliciting donations. They deserve our money (and more importantly, our time)!

Lastly, its important to repeat the works of Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano: “I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it's humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.” To extend Galeano's sentiment, charity is selective, solidarity is inclusive. Anyone can give solidarity, only the well-off can give charity. Solidarity emphasizes achieving a better future together, whereas charity is soaked in the language of self-righteousness.

We are an organization called Food Not Bombs, which once a week gives away free food to whomever is hungry as a (small) statement calling attention to society's misplaced priorities of militarism and greed over social need. For us, the work that FNB does not stem from a sense of guilt (whether middle-class, white, or otherwise). Nor do we share food with others because we're directed by a religion or dogma to do it. It does not help us to feel morally superior to those who “receive” or those who do nothing. FNB shares food with other out of sense of collective humanity, because we have just as much to learn from the “less fortunate” who eat with us (perhaps more) than they from us. Unlike some churches who serve food to the homeless to convert them or rich celebrities who give money (for more fame or tax write-offs), all we assume to receive in turn is the knowledge that our deeds may eventually, karmatically, come back around to benefit us in the future. We call this mutual aid.

Mutual aid is giving to others without the guarantee of receiving something in return. The gift or assistance is given with implicit assumption that the community of people you reside in will, in-turn, help you in times of need. Aid is given without strings attached. Even if, sometimes, help is asked for in return, it is never demanded. There are no signed contracts or legally-binding agreements. Helping your fellow humans is the right thing to do in any given situation. And if everyone else thought this way, and didn't just strategically donate money to promote their new movie or to avoid an indictment, we'd be in a better, more caring world.

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