The Bourgeoisie Strike Back

In my recent post for NYT’s India Ink, “Let Them Eat Charity,” I try to deconstruct the web of lies we tell ourselves when we ignore the neediest amongst us—people like Ujjwal Sharma, a 7-year-old boy with leukemia.

I thought I’d covered all our excuses and rationalizations, but the commenters on my post proved me wrong.

For starters, I missed the there’s-always-someone-needier ploy. “Ringollo” writes:  “… I have just finished reading a book on Indian slums. My first reaction was, Ujjwal’s family has access to a computer and is soliciting donations in California??” I eagerly await Ringollo’s second reaction, but meanwhile I have good news for him: at the rate at which Internet access is spreading, soon everyone will be undeserving of charity. Mission accomplished!

Prof. Alfonse Romero, another commenter, was less outraged by our lack of empathy for Ujjwal than by my inexcusable use of first-person plural: “Lots of “we” and “us” in your piece, Mr. Mungee. Are you sure it’s not just you?” Yes, Prof. Romero, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, it’s most of us—maybe everyone except you? Thank you for your generous donation.

And from the so-bourgeois-I-don’t-even-see-it-anymore department, we have “Sandy413,” who writes: “I have to work for the first four months in a year just to pay Uncle Sam who then does the charity on my behalf (and I don’t object to paying taxes, by the way).” Happy April!

But my favorite comment is from “Jacob,” who writes, “The problem for you is that you’re worthless at everything besides writing code.” Yes, Jacob, it’s a terrible problem; I cope somehow.

(Jacob’s comment narrowly won over Saurabh’s, who feels I’ve read too much of Ayn Rand.)

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On a more serious (and paradoxical) note, as I was writing and researching this piece, I realized that I hate so many things about charity: the selfish motivations behind it, the arbitrariness of outcomes, the inefficiency, our desperate social dependence on it, and the sickly sweet devotional halo that surrounds it.

Betty S. echoes my sentiment in her comment: “… in an age where the greatest virtue is self-fulfillment, charity and ‘service’ has become therapy as a host of 12 step programs and evangelical churches attest. Bourgeois Americans demand an emotional feel-good pay-off with each discreet act of charity.” And, I might add, with each act of non-charity as well—to not help others is an ordinary human flaw, but to be heartless and portray it as an act of morality? That, my fellow passengers of the Titanic, takes a Republican candidate for President.

I couldn’t agree more with Joel R’s critique of charity, who writes: “Proponents of charity urge to do something now, to not politicize the subject, but just blindly give instead of criticizing the root of the issue, lack of healthcare, lack of general welfare, etc. and the deteriorating condition of global capitalism as a modus operandi.”  It’s all true. All I can offer you, Joel, are the two weasel words we use to preface every ugly software architecture decision: “For now, …”

Many of my Indian (and American) friends suggested that I should have explored whether Indians donate less than Americans. Some said I was too chicken to wade into that controversy. I just think that ethnic comparisons of charity are irrelevant; conscience doesn’t have a skin color. Besides, even if some statistic shows incontrovertibly that Indians are stingy donors, it would only provoke ethnic group defenses (rather than individual reflection), e.g. “Yes, maybe Indians donate less, but given our long history of financial insecurity, that is totally understandable,” or, much more likely in today’s state of the web, “India bashing!” (my suggestion for a new Facebook button.)

But Ramesh Raghuvanshi from Pune articulates what I suspect many of my friends feel: “[Sumedh] must understand charity is western concept. Indians by nature narcissist, they want their own liberation from life and death circle. so in India social consciousness never developed.” Don’t you just love comments that undermine themselves by their very existence?

It’s too early to judge if my post will help Ujjwal, but, sadly, “Let Them Eat Charity” seems far less popular than “Why I Left India (Again)” (#youremember). At least this time I won’t become Chetan Bhagat’s muse.

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We live in incredibly short-sighted, cynical and self-destructive times—in other words, splendidly capitalist times. It feels pointless to try to save any one particular life—I think that’s because we’re OD’ing on our own lies. And that, with apologies to those who said my piece was pointless, was the point, sort of. Also, Help Ujjwal.

4 thoughts on “The Bourgeoisie Strike Back

  1. Well written article.. I loved the previous one about the return back to India and the return back from. As always, the comments are a lot of fun to read.

    Charity is not an easy topic to form an opinion about. Many, delay the discussion about it indefinitely and install a place-holder opinion which, while not fully thought out, is at least sufficient to make us believe that our intellectual profile is somewhat complete. Its like that subject in college that you knew required a lot of thought and preparation, but you instead took the easy route and crammed a couple of nights just enough to clear the exam.

    And from the comments, its certainly clear that many fool themselves into believing that their place-holder opinion is the permanent one.

    I’m sure I don’t have a fully developed opinion on charity — at least not enough that it compels me to do something about it on a regular basis.

    A criticism of your article was that it felt like you were wielding a club of guilt that you perhaps felt yourself, and swung it in very broad arcs over others heads as well. What might have been compelling to me as a reader would have been for you to perhaps elucidate why you felt Ujjwal’s cause was more worthy than others that you may have considered. Surely, not all causes affect all people the same way, and nothing in your article made it obvious as to why such a cause should have moved *me*, nor why it made you feel especially guilty about. I’ve tried, but failed to convince myself that one person’s dilemma is more deserving of my attention and money than another’s. I have donated to individuals, but rarely, and only when I’ve been moved personally by someone’s story. I do donate (somewhat regularly) but find it easier to donate to causes like education, distribution of information, anti government. I’m more drawn to what I call “enabler” causes than to ones pertaining to individuals.

    Gautam

  2. Hi Gautam,

    Thanks for reading and for your lucid comment—a rare commodity these days. :)

    You’re right, of course, that I didn’t present a compelling case for Ujjwal. Instead, and probably wrongly in hindsight, I thought it would be more interesting to explore the reasons why stories like Ujjwal’s are not compelling. Indeed, one reason is exactly as you describe: most people (me included) are naturally drawn in to contribute to larger, systemic issues.

    But one of the questions I ask in this article is: what factor does our intellectual ego play in our approach to charity? When I hear stories like Ujjwal’s, I feel a little like we’re standing on the Titanic discussing better ship construction techniques, rather than offering a hand to the child drowning in front of us.

    ~sumedh

  3. Perhaps needless to say (?) well written. I liked this one better than the one about India (I hated you then ;-) ). I reckon, you, with all your apparantly self deprecating flaws and failings, you have probably done more for Ujjwal, than you would have done by donating 50$ (or 100$? 1000$?…) – for if I had not read your article I and many others wouldnt have known about Ujjwal, leave alone have dharm-sankat about whether to contribute to the financial cost of treatment for him. Perhaps (or definitely?) charity is not just money donation. There is charity of time, charity of effort, charity of books, clothes and many others. Yous has been a charity of publicity – if I may call it that – as the site says – little effort for little master. You have done what is larger, systemic (as referred to in the comment above) than an individual contribution.
    This is not meant to be patronising – “Let Them Eat Charity” may seems less popular than “Why I Left India (Again)”, but I think you have done more with it.

    • Hi Kaustubha,

      I just hope my next piece doesn’t push you back into the hating camp. Just kidding. :) Thanks for the encouragement and your kind words. It’s the few people like you that make my sort of writing worthwhile.

      ~sumedh

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