Charity is an Outdated Idea

There are fewer beggars on the streets of New York than there used to be but you run into them everyday on the subway and sitting on cardboard in the streets with signs announcing what led them to beg: illness, PTSS, a dog that needed to be fed. People are likely to identify some beggars as more deserving of charity than others, and so the moral question of whether to give becomes complicated. If we are more likely to give our handouts to those beggars who look most nearly like ordinary people, and so evoke sym[athy, then charity is given for our own well being because it has become possible to identify with one of God’s less fortunate creatures by having overcome only a minimum of disgust or disquiet because this person seems capable of becoming even more like us. On the other hand, if handouts are more likely to be given to those who look most needy, then the giver is perversely catering to his sense of disgust because he rewards those who are most grotesque and so gives tacit approval to those people who maim themselves or appear maimed or drag along children to increase their take.

For my part, I did not give money to the homeless, the mental patients, or the drug addicts that lived in my neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side, however much I was tempted to do so, and however much I might feel doubtful of my posturing as Scrooge McDuck. I used to whisper “Are there no workhouses?” to my children as we passed the beggars. It was a deliberately cruel and arcane joke, meant to instruct myself rather than my children that charity is a public obligation rather than a private indulgence, and offered in spite of the fact that public officials, including the mayor and the welfare commissioner, discouraged such almsgiving because it was very likely to be a scam. I did and still sometimes do give to subway beggars who have a particularly good rap, like the one who says he won’t play his broken trombone if he gets enough money. Subway riders good humoredly give up money to this Henny Youngman brand of extortion. Like money give to Juilliard students for their “free” concerts, it is an acknowledgement of a moment of entertainment. But that is a case of giving money for circumstantial reasons, as an ironic exception, a Zen-like act of compassionate indifference, like Jesus curing the sick in “Matthew”, rather than a case of providing money in all seriousness, as if it made a difference, or should be a regularized obligation, like Jesus curing the sick in “Mark”.

There was one time, long ago, when a drunk stopped me on the street and I gave him a lecture along with five dollars, not thinking till years later that perhaps he was patient with my lecture because he knew there would probably be a nice bit of conscience money at the end of it. He knew the streets better than I did. In that case, my magnanimity was a form of foolishness. My compassion could be used against me because I had subverted the spirit of charity for the sake of self-aggrandizement, of showing myself charitable to this man, who knew precisely how much, in real dollar terms, such showing off was worth. Getting fooled leaves after it a sense that people betray offers of trust. It detracts rather than increases the world’s store of human confidence.

There was this nattily dressed man with an attache case who stopped me with an embarrassed look and said that he was on a business trip from Philadelphia but had lost his wallet and would take my address along with train fare so that he could send me a check. I never got the check, but ran into the same fellow some five years later on the same street corner, running the same scam, except it was the same suit and there was no attache case, and his hands were dirty and his face had a bandage on it, and he seemed confused that his scam was not working very well anymore.

I hoped that he still though his scam had a chance of working so that he could continue to take a kind of pride in his work, akin to the pride of the beggar who banged on my car window when I was in gridlock at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. He said that he had plied his trade long enough so that he had been turned down by people at least as high class as me, and that he didn’t have much use for people who drove foreign cars, because they were ungenerous, as if this were an occupation in which he was supplying the service of allowing me to feel generous, and that there were enough customers out there so that he didn’t need a difficult one like me.

The levels of delusion which enshroud these beggars is a result, I think of the asymmetry they impose on their erstwhile benefactors. Their appeal for your charity is a categorical declaration that you cannot question their motives, for then you seem uncharitable, but you are allowed to question your own motives, and find them uncharitable. However obvious the lie, like the beggar on the subway who tries to pass off his gangrene as AIDS sores, presumably because that was the in-disease that season, saying as much makes you unloving, because it is not seemly to brood on the pathos of the human condition. Beggars are, after all, more sinned against than sinful, and the impulse to charity is more important than its success.

Each case of potential charity makes each of us like the ardent semarian I ran into who wondered whether he was giving alms with the appropriate respect for the dignity of the almstaker, whether the way he had given alms put his own soul in more or less jeopardy of the vice of pride. But it is a mistake to brood on our individual weakness rather than to contemplate our collective capacity to do something. History is long past the time when we are constrained to turn to Jesus to cure the lepers. Medicine can do it. Charity and compassion, similarly, need no longer be understood as a singular event, an exception to the way the world works, even if Dickensian bountifulness had avoided the problem of the collective will by turning the complexity of the act of giving into only a secularized sacrament of the communion between souls. It is not my job, my moral obligation, to choke on my coffee and chocolate croissant as I passed through Grand Central Station amid the homeless. Democracy provides the secular consciousness with an alternative to charity because it allows us to appease our consciences by saying that we voted correctly. Casting a ballot is an action that thrusts through the window of private life into the larger world, expressing our fantasies of how we regard ourselves as good natured or hard headed, proud of our feelings for others or of our righteousness as respectable, hard working citizens who believe in “tough love” for others. Voting and political opinions are expressions of our moral character rather than just objective assessments of the state of the union. I, for one, prefer the government to finance generous payments to and programs for the poor. Our opinions of the poor are therefore the extent of our immediate duty to the poor, the specifics concerning how much and who should get government funding left to experts, and so we can get on with our lives, our guilt appeased, just as a non-compulsory donation to the poor is a way to appease our consciences in societies that do not have a sense of public responsibility towards the poor. The government’s obligation to help the poor, both those considered deserving and those considered undeserving, replaces the need for voluntary charity, however that may be solicited, whether by an organization or an individual beggar. There is no need for a lady bountiful.

Like other sacramental and sacramental-like actions, the vote makes us free of other curses, like the burden of dead spirits or of the suffering in the world, by specifying the time and place of that very efficacious public role. The vote, however, is a public event that is desacralized because it is an exercise of judgment rather than piety, and so, possibly, of intellectual rather than emotional good will, and so a reversal of the Dickensian formula which trusted compassion more than the vote.

There is no other way out of Dickens’ curse to be kind. If I turn my anger on those, like the bums, or the celebrities who trade on their generosity of spirit and the time they devote to good deeds, who use compassion as a form of manipulation, I still must remind myself not to lose the feeling of compassion itself, and forget that winter is cold for the homeless and drugs a form of madness for the addicted, even if compassion does and has become a way to appear good. But reminding myself to feel the right thing is to fall into the Dickensian trap. Skepticism may separate me from the need to seem compassionate, but it does not save me from taking offense at being though uncompassionate. The rhetoric of skepticism is like almsgiving. It is more magical than sacramental because it is an incantation the can never be sufficiently invoked so that it will get rid of devils rather than merely hold them off.

One more story to show the confusion that falls upon the almsgiver. I met a man in Newark who motioned to me while trying to move a heavy suitcase. As I came over, waiting for his signal that he would appreciate assistance, he said, “Don’t worry, I don’t have a gun”, which made me rethink this situation as one in which I was going to be solicited for money, and since I was in such a good mood after seeing what I thought had been a remarkable set of paintings from the Harlem Renaissance at the Newark Museum, I expected to hand over some money if I were asked. (I could not preemptively offer money, on the chance that the man was only interested in moving his suitcase.) The man himself hesitated, as if he were uncomfortable asking, as might have indeed been the case, and heavy heartedly began again, “You may see before you only a black man, but…”, at which point I turned on my heel and walked away before he could deny himself thrice, but starting feeling guilty before I reached the railroad station, wondering how I could have handled the situation better because, after all, he was the one who was needy, he was making an overture, and I was denying him.

But it would have been wrong of me to say “No, we are all brothers”. That was clearly not true because he was poor and I could afford to go to museum shows. It also would have been wrong to turn biblical and say with pity and compassion that I too had been a slave in Egypt, that all people must remember that everyone, in some sense, has been a slave in Egypt. That would have been arcane as well as insulting because he continues in a more literal slavery today than I do and it is both bad manners and supercilious to engage in comparative ethnic suffering, as if ethnic suffering can be equalized.

So I was probably right to turn away because all I could have done was play into his beggarliness and my educational and economic affluence rather than create even a momentary or symbolic equality. Wanting to give him money would have meant accepting his definition of the situation and so demean my sense of the relations of blacks and whites at the same time as it demeaned him by approving of his obsessive storytelling, his inability to give up on what he but not I defined as his sinfulness. The kind of generosity implicit in giving alms does not liberate us from the bonds that shackle the partly enslaved to the partly free.