To give or not to give?
After the tsunami, the only dilemma most Britons faced about their response was how much they should give. After Hurricane Katrina, many are asking whether they should give anything at all.
It’s not hard to see why.
“Charity is cold in the multitude of possessions,” wrote the poet Christopher Smart; words that are even more true when that multitude belongs to those pleading for help.
Charity is about the better off helping the worst off, not vice versa, and the United States is surely rich enough to look after itself.
But the problem is that the biggest victim of Katrina is not an abstract entity called the US, but a generally poor, uninsured, marginalised sector of its population. Their country is rich, but they are not. “The greater the wealth, the thicker will be the dirt,” said economist JK Galbraith, and New Orleans is one of the dirtiest corners of the American economic machine. To deny the need of its people is like saying that because the lord of the manor’s estate is thriving, his underpaid labourers must be doing all right too.
Some will protest that the US created its underclass and so should take responsibility for sorting out the mess that results when it suffers a catastrophe. You could equally say that many African famines have been caused by incompetent and corrupt governments, so we shouldn’t clear up after them either. Most people who read this newspaper would find that line of reasoning abhorrent, yet when it’s applied to poor black Americans, it suddenly seems far more seductive.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s a little bit of schadenfreude in all of this. We don’t want to plug the gaping hole created by inegalitarian American social policy because we want to expose it for what it is, and shatter the US’s self-image as the most fair and free country in the world.
If an appeal were launched that was targeted specifically at rebuilding the lives of poor Americans let down by their government, we might be quicker to open our wallets. Giving to that would not only help those who really don’t have the resources to help themselves, it would also shame the US government by showing an American underclass relying on foreign charity.
I’d kick-start such an appeal with my fee for this piece. Any takers?—Â