Aug 15, 2010

Short circuiting charity

There used to be an old conservative position -- not so long ago, now, though it feels like a long, long time since then -- that opposed the welfare state and charity programs on the grounds that they perpetuated the problem in the guise of solving certain symptoms. There was a fear that helping, say, a hungry person or a homeless person actually worked like oil in the machine to save and keep smoothly running the system that created as a byproduct the conditions of homelessness and hunger.

There used to be -- I heard this explicitly in a Christian conservative context -- a little metaphor about how helping people who had fallen of a cliff was good, but it's better to build a fence at the top of the cliff.

The problem, pretty obviously, is that this argument can be and can seem like a cover for doing nothing. And anyway politics and political solutions are supposed to be about the art of the possible, and making some movement, and one need not revolutionize, nor is one necessarily paralyzed until the revolution or the kingdom of God comes. There are things that can be done.

There is, also, a bit of a false dichotomy in the argument, though it is true that certain liberal or humanizing measures can work to ensure the continued operation of a basically, essentially illeberal and dehumanizing system. And it is true that change often comes after some social polarization, where the moderate, middle position becomes impossible to hold, though this is equally the case for positive and negative changes, pogroms and enslavements as much as liberations and civil rights movements.

The argument didn't really disappear for any of those reasons, though. It was just that the rhetoric was too complicated -- I don't want to say sophisticated, but tricky-- and it couldn't compete with the rightist rhetoric of resentment.
With talk of welfare queens and cheats, and taxation as theft, with the complete alienazation of society's poor and needy and the self-proclaimed victimization of middle majority who, by any objective measure, have benefited from society as it is, the argument about conservatism as a better way to help "the least of these," the "orphans and widows" of society was constantly creamed, crushed, destroyed and disintegrated by the very people who should have held it.

That's how it felt anyway.

The last time I heard the argument was the first time George W. Bush was campaigning, when he suggested there could be a kind of "compassionate conservatism," and while it wasn't quite worked out the way I had wanted that idea worked out, the idea itself, in 2000, lasted for about a nanosecond before conservative commentators drowned it under the rhetoric of resentment and imagined persecution, and then conceded it could be kept as a shell of itself for cover for doing nothing to help those who need help. There was, as I remember it, a moment, a pause, a single, gargling, transitionary breath, and then the idea was dead: Conservatism in this country was not and would not be about a better way or a better system for a more just society. It wasn't interested in that, actually. Everything was going to be about fighting for the interests of one's own group, one's side, one's self.

I bring this up now only because I see that Slovoj Zizek, in the latest of the wonderful RSA Animate videos, makes this same, old conservative argument about the "surprising ethical implications of charitable giving." He says well-intentioned people "very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease .... The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible and the altruistic virtues have really prevented this aim." Of course, he's doing it as a kind of unreconstructed revolutionary communism that, say, the folks at the Acton Institute might find quite shocking.