the circular runner

the systemic causes of my cynicism–or–why I’m a jugmental a-hole….

In observations on October 3, 2010 at 11:34 am

I attended a fundraiser last weekend in Napa. Being a teacher, I had no business being there, but my wife and I are friends with a man who works for the host organization, so we got invites. Overall, it was a lovely experience, or it should’ve been, at least. The event was held in a private home on about 150 acres of land right outside of St. Helena, and though it was a glass and steel rectangle and looked like a giant art installation more than a home, there was no denying that the place was impressive. If I were a normal person, I would’ve focused myself on the home’s minimalist-chic beauty, the great things that the host organization does (it advocates for reproductive rights in Africa and Asia), and enjoyed the fine wine that was flowing freely. I would’ve kicked my feet back and smiled at the citrus sunset and breathed in the country air. But alas, I am not normal. There was a part of me that was uncomfortable or angry (I can’t really say which). Maybe, if I’m honest, a little of both.

But why? I’m going to say to you right now that for a week I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. Like most, I looked outside of myself for the answer. And like most, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is mine, which isn’t to say that there weren’t outside forces at play. Like, for instance, there was the older, white woman walking around in a turquoise sari. I know I shouldn’t care, and at one level, I don’t. Dress and let dress is my default position with respect to what people wear to parties. If some older, wealthy person wants to wear ethnic garb, then I say, why not? But then there’s this other part of me, the part that starts thinking and wondering things I shouldn’t be thinking and wondering at parties. Like, I start asking if this woman strutting around in her peacock-colored silk outfit is doing so because she’s excited by what she’s wearing, the way my wife is excited by a beautiful pair of Italian shoes, or is she also making a statement? Is she letting her friends know that she’s different from them, that she’s willing to be ethnic, dangerous, and exotic while they wear their staid designer clothes? I have no idea. But I’d be willing to bet that if we were at an Academy Awards party or at a fundraiser for Barbara Boxer, the sari would’ve stayed in the closet.

In honesty, there were numerous times that evening when I noticed how excited people were getting because they thought they were being exotic. During dinner, we were assigned to tables named after the countries the organization worked in, which at first, I thought was kind of a cool touch. But then, because I don’t much care for wine and because I was not as tipsy as I should have been, I start wondering again (even though I shouldn’t) isn’t there something strange about eating a sumptuous meal on a table named for countries where people die of famine or are brutally repressed? I sat at the Ethiopia table, which was right next to the Liberia table, which happened to be directly across from the Sierra Leone table. No one around me thought it strange. I even heard people giggling and trading their locations as if they were children playing a game: “Yeah, I’m in Sudan tonight.” “Yeah, me too. Let’s drink to that, baby.”

During dinner, we listened to speeches that were meant to educate the wealthy potential patrons so that they would get involved and write a check. Though the presentations were over-long and preachy, they were what one would expect from such an event, and, in fairness, they are necessary to get people to donate. But an unexpected moment of honesty came through when the twelve year-old daughter of the host got onstage to introduce her mother and told us proudly that our host got involved because of a trip to India where she was “disgusted” by what she saw. The girl is twelve, I know. And maybe she could’ve chosen a more polite, if not more accurate word, but I’m sure she was quoting her mother. I’m sure her mother was disgusted with what she saw, by the systemic problems that cause poor women to die while giving birth. Tragic, I’d say is the better word, but I’m not trying to nitpick about language here. I’m trying to get at what bothered me, and maybe I found the problem. I’m troubled because the problems I was having at this dinner are as systemic as the problems the organization is trying to fix. Or to put it more simply, I’m troubled by human nature, which means I’m an idiot for worrying about it.

I don’t blame the mother for her disgust. But hearing that word echo out of the PA system, I have to say that it points to an odd split one sees in people who do aid-work. On one side, there is the call to help others, but in many, there is also a sense of superiority that comes with giving that help. Even if you mean well, it does seem difficult, some would say impossible, not to feel a tinge of arrogance about being able to come to the aid of someone else. The very judgment required to get involved necessitates a view of the other as lacking in something. Sure, no one at this benefit would blame a Moroccan woman for not having the right pre-natal care, but disgust for a system that allows this to happen easily bleeds over onto the victim. Can you really separate the disgust you feel for a social system from a disgust for the people who are part of that system–even if they are vicitims of it? Maybe disgust is too strong a word. Maybe a version of self-righteousness, a sense of paternalism, something that makes the good work you are doing tainted in some way. That’s what I felt from our host as she spoke, surrounded by her land, her voice echoing through all the steel and glass of her home.

Helping people is not easy, and I’m not saying anything new when I say that people’s reasons for doing so are not pure. There are no free lunches, or dinners, for that matter. I know, I know. We don’t live in an ideal world where people help and don’t feel superior–even just a little bit. Where people wear saris because they want to and not because they are trying to show off their downness with a cause. Where fundraisers don’t try to entertain their patrons with silly (and insensitive) table assignments. Yes, I know this, and I’m still bothered. So I have to assume the problem is with me. I need to chill. I need to drink more wine (even though I prefer beer). And next time I find myself at a fundraiser and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack is booming, I promise to listen to Jai Ho and be happy. I will raise my glass to the white women in their saris or their kimonos or their kaftans or whatever other traditional clothing they want to put on. I will smile and accept the messiness and the limitations of charity. I will. I will.

  1. Charity is one of the aspects of Western culture that really puzzle me. Looking down to someone whom your own culture has put in this (juxta)position in the first place, and then getting tax reductions and all the perks that come along…
    I recently met a guy who works for a charity and earns more money than people working for-profit. Mind you, he works in fundraising. So you talk stuff to people, they feel guilty, they ‘give’ – and a big part of this money then goes to keep the whole circus running (because of course charities can’t have a ‘profit’).
    The world we live in is amazing.

    • I don’t know if I want to go as far as you on the dismissal of charity–though charity may be the wrong word for it. I think here has to be room for giving back, and though, perhaps, our reasons for giving are not always pure, there is hopefully something of a need we have to help those who need. My problem that night was probably more my own. People aren’t perfect and they are not pure, and I was recoiling (arrogantly so) at how giving and condescension were co-mingling. I think that’s what your comment was getting at, but the other side of the argument would probably be that without these condescending types, there would have been a lot less money raised for a truly good cause. Dancing with the devil as it were.

      Thanks again! I like the thoughtful replies. Please subscribe–don’t worry, I’m not media. LOL.

      • Ouch. The last place I would expect a LOL… 😀

        Anyway, subscribed. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into 😛

      • Somehow I knew you’d hate the LOL. But 1. I don’t know how to make the happy faces, and I’m not really sure which is worse. And 2. sometimes you gotta mix it up. In any case, thanks for subscribing. I kind of write about a lot of things here, but mainly it switches between writing, teaching, and a little amateur philosophizing. Stay tuned!

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