Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some thoughts on charity

I have been thinking a lot about charity lately. I was going to write a "stock" piece on how greedy and selfish Americans of all classes are these days.

The evidence was going to be the selfish, materialistic, "me" first culture that is every where peppered with exampled everyday life (pushing past the old lady getting off the train, wasting food at the all-you-can eat buffet, or driving a huge SUV), pop culture(Jay-Z or Kanye West's latest video), politics(voting or narrow self-interests rather than broad measures), sports (NBA players versus owners) and business (Madoff, Goldman Sach's $10 Billion in compensation, or record corporate profits with record unemployment). A nice easy story, but not quite reality.

I don't personally believe be are less charitable now then 40 years ago when I was growing up. I think they want to help and to give, but they also want to participate and feel appreciated. They just don't know how to do it. People have more now materially and so are more inclined to share what they have. I think instead that there are two reasons why people have grown less charitable over time.

1) Pop and consumer culture have made selfishness and greed more acceptable to sell products. Consumer marketing has made it acceptable to get what you want regardless of how you get it.Campaigns like "your worth it" or "go you deserve it" give approval to selfish behavior. The message is reinforced a 100 times a day. As a consequence,
peoples attitudes have changed. It is more socially acceptable to be less charitable. For example, when I first came to New York more people would give to the homeless, now they look the other way.

2) There is also less need for charity. Most people, materially, have everything they need. We are connected to friends, family and neighbors who are like us. We live in neighborhoods with like minded people where there is little need for charity. Our world ends there and we do not concern ourselves with the larger community. There is less opportunity for individual charity. Also, lots of large, professional charities have replaced personal charity.

When I grew up charity really meant something. It meant giving with out looking down on the people accepting the benefit. It mean empathy for someone who could be you. It meant living a christian life. It meant giving according to Maimonides without regard to others because charity was the right thing to do. It meant giving alms to the poor.

So, I am asking everyone to work harder at being charitable. I am calling for a higher ideal of altruism that truly says I am my brothers keeper. I am asking everyone to look out for the greater good. I can do better. That I can be charitable, speaks to the best and not the worst in society. I am better, I am charitable.

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