Earlier today I posted on the book of face:
Whatever happened to the idea that one could be quietly charitable in his own way, choosing the cause or causes he wished to support without being "challenged" by supposedly well-meaning friends and associates?
Of course I was referring somewhat obliquely to the ice bucket challenge being pimped by the ALS Association in their current fundraising campaign, but the fact is that ALSA is not the only organization whose marketing people dream up new ways to part good-hearted Americans with their pocket change. At least in this case, ALSA has a fairly-decent throughput of 27% of income going for research, 19% for patient and community services (which I interpret as some sort of direct aid to patients and families), and 32% for education about the disease. They spend 7% on administration, which seems reasonable, and 14% on fundraising, which also seems reasonable if a little high, given that apparently all they had to do was get this ice bucket thing to go viral and sit back.
One commenter on the thread suggested that maybe the schtick wasn't so bad, after all former presidents were getting into the act. He also suggested that perhaps we old people couldn't see the forest for the trees (actually what he said was that he could see the generation gap getting wider rather than contracting, and then offered his "come on" plea that former presidents were doing it).
But my post wasn't aimed specifically at the ALSA ice bucket campaign, even though I used the "challenge" term. What I really meant -- and what I responded to the negative commenter by saying -- was that I didn't care if GWB let Laura dump a bucket of ice water on his head, because I learned early in life that just because one of my "friends" jumped off a cliff wasn't a good enough reason for me to emulate his behavior.
Challenging someone to donate to charity or, should they refuse, shaming them into performing some penitential act, is not how charity is supposed to be done. Charity begins in the home, and comes from the heart, not from being challenged to duplicate some stupid stunt that's been dreamed up by a marketing department of a large charitable organization.
I come to this particular crossroads because I am (as should be fairly obvious from my postings over the years) a dedicated Freemason1. Freemasonry was created out of a need to succor the widow and the orphan in an era when the mass of people were poor, longevity typically wasn't, most men worked in trades where they could be instantly killed or maimed for life if they weren't damned careful what they were about, and, critically, there wasn't any insurance, or any real way to save money against disaster short of putting it in a sock under your straw tick. If you had a sock. And a straw tick. If you were a husband and father, say, a member of the free stoneworker's guild, you could be working 200 feet up on the local cathedral building project and put a foot wrong and be, seconds later, a bloody dead mess on the ground 200 feet below. Or you could be working with an axe or a saw or an adze, or just about any other edged tool used for timbering or stonecutting. One slip of the fingers and maybe you don't have one or two of them anymore. Or maybe you don't have the hand. Or a foot.
But if you were lucky enough to be a member of that free stoneworker's guild, it was likely that they would take care of you and your family until either you recovered enough to go back to work, or even if you couldn't. And they would take care of your widow and orphans if you died.
Why was that? Well, it was because the free stoneworker's guild was fairly enlightened for its day, and had determined that it was the right thing to do, so it swore its members to an oath that, among other things like requiring obedience and true work, also required that you do the right thing by your fellow craftsman -- because he was sworn to do the same for you. This attitude about caring for people other than yourself -- being charitable to others -- goes back in masonic history to the 14th Century, if not earlier. And when operative lodges of freemasons decided in the 17th Century that it made sense to open their doors to other good men in their towns and villages, who then became "speculative" freemasons2, they carried that charitable attitude along with them into common practice. Then, after 1717 and the institution of the first Grand Lodge at London, the idea was codified into what we call the Old Charges Of A Freemason, and, a little later, into Anderson's The Constitutions of the Free-Masons. And they were not the only ones to do this. Some other fraternal organizations that were designed around the concept of charitable practice, such as the Odd Fellows, also trace their origins back to more or less the same time, although they do not claim the same lineage of Freemasonry.
But the word "charity", as they used it, did not mean what we think of today as "charity", which like as not they would have called "alms", anyway. The medieval notion of charity was to treat people kindly and much as you would like to be treated yourself. It was very much an expression of the Golden Rule. Alms, in the form of money (or other in-kind transfers of wealth, like food, clothing, tools, animal fodder, etc.) might be involved when one acted charitably, but the act of being charitable was the point.
Even in times closer to ours, the word did not immediately conjure up transfers of value. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln famously said, "With malice toward none, with charity for all". He was not referring to millions of dollars in money transfers to the losing Confederates, as a president in the 21st Century might do. The key was in the duality of the phrase. Lincoln meant that the end of the war would require reconciliation, that men on one side of the soon-to-be-late conflict would have to shed malicious thoughts about the men on the other side, and treat each other with leniency and compassion. The entire paragraph reads:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Nothing about money in there at all.
This understanding of the practice of charity, and what it meant to be a charitable person, seems to have survived until about the time of the Great Depression. I believe (and that's why this isn't a scholarly paper; it's just my opinion backed up by what I see are the facts) that at about that time, the progressive socialists who came to power with FDR began to co-opt the concept of "being charitable" into a set of taxpayer-funded relief programs that later metastasized into our current federal and state welfare systems. Where physical relief (as opposed to "charity" -- physical relief was a "charitable act") had been handled for centuries by religious and private groups, now it would be funneled mainly through government, because private charity was considered inequitable and too dependent upon the fickle, er, charitable nature of the general public.
"Charity" thus became financially- rather than philosophically-bound, both because it was supported with tax monies that all too often were deducted automatically from wages, and because institutionalized "charities" with specific goals sprang up (think disease of the week...well, go back to why I'm writing this post, and to the ALSA, or to the Red Cross, or to the Lupus Foundation, American Cancer Association, American Heart Association, etc. ad nauseum) with legions of volunteers and paid staffers to pound the pavement for them. Hell, look at the March of Dimes, founded in 1938 by FDR his own bad self. Its original reason for being barely even exists anymore; the disease it was created to eradicate (polio) has been, well, essentially eradicated3, and they've moved on to other childhood diseases.
When I was growing up, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, we were taught that "charity" meant "give money". Or at the very least, give something of value. I remember the UNICEF boxes we carried at Halloween. I remember the Jewish National Fund tzedakah boxes we had at home and stuffed loose change into. I'm sure members of other religious denominations had similar piggy-bank-like schemes.4
Oh, and by the way: I grew up as a Reform Jew. I'm not one anymore and haven't been for years. But Reform Judaism is very, very, VERY social justice-based. We got our UNICEF boxes at religious school, not at our day school. And we were taught that the Hebrew word "tzedakah" meant "charity", which in turn meant "share the wealth", i.e., "share your wealth with those who don't have anything" -- like those poor African dictators who got rich off of UN largesse. But I digress.
Anyway, that is NOT what the Hebrew word "tzedakah" means. It comes from the root TZ-D-K, which in its basic form means "to be righteous". (And not in the way the word has been corrupted by language morons in the 20th and 21st Centuries, either.) To commit acts of "tzedakah" is to emulate exactly what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said "with charity to all". Be lenient and compassionate to your fellow man. Take care of the widow and orphan. See that the stranger in your gate has shelter and a square meal. Be kind to animals. Love one another.
In other words, when we were kids, THE GROWNUPS FLAT OUT LIED TO US. Or at the very least didn't know themselves that they were lying.
And in the 50 years since the institution of the Great Society, and the exponential growth of government-directed and big impersonal institutional charity (and there is nothing worse amongst the latter than the United Way and the Red Cross, neither of which any right-thinking American should be giving money to), most people are completely lost to the concept that charity is not a simple transfer of value, be that value money or clothing or used kitchen appliances or whatever. Charity today is impersonal and is generally handled by paying your taxes, writing a check when someone solicits you, or dropping loose change into the Salvation Army bucket at Christmastime (if you can find a store that lets them stand outside, that is).5 And every social and fraternal group has got a pet charity (sometimes two of them) that it is inordinately proud of.
It may come as a shock to my readers that I don't care much for institutional charity. I don't care for the welfare system we've built in this country either, that takes a gigantic chunk out of my paycheck twice a month. Both are conceived as a way to separate me from my hard-earned gelt, the government's "share" by force if necessary, and the big impersonal institutional charities by attempting to shame me into jumping off the same cliff I talked about earlier.
I love my country, but I hate the deadbeats who live off of my wealth. Or what I conceive to be my wealth. As a noted Washington, D.C.-area golfer who sometimes puts on a president hat told me some time back, I guess didn't build that. Of course that would come as a surprise to the Founding Fathers, and to Old Abe, too. It certainly came as a surprise to me.
I also love my fraternity, and the various appendant bodies under it to which I belong, but I'm really over the institutional charity angle. It's not what we are about. We are taught as Freemasons to be charitable, not to write checks to charity. And a little research into that shows that, yes, the architects of the Masonic Fraternity meant the word no differently than Lincoln did, or than anyone else did before government and big institutional charities got involved.
After all this typing, the point is simply this: If you are offered the choice of making a donation or being shamed, or if you are offered no choice at all in supporting government social welfare programs that you don't agree with, there is nothing charitable whatsoever involved. "Charity by writing a check" (or getting it taken out of your check) does not fit the classical definition of charity. No person should feel a warm glow because they wrote a check instead of pouring ice water over their head.
And I will extend that to my Fraternity, as well: When you require me to pay an annual assessment for the upkeep of the Masonic Home, I feel absolutely no thrill. It's just the cost of being a Freemason in this state. But when I freely donate to the Home, or to its Foundation, I do feel charitable. And when I go to the Home and visit the brethren there, I feel that I have actually performed a charitable act.
That's the definition of charity. We need to take it back from the state, and from the institutions, and start practicing it ourselves.
That is a challenge I will accept without reservation.
1 Who, by the way, doesn't cuss nearly as much in public as he does in this blog. Or rant with the same abandon and lack of caring what other people think about it, either. The blog is a relief valve, without which I would probably explode from watching the mill run of my fellow Americans act like total fucking idiots most of the time. As far as I know, I am well thought of by my brethren, some of whom do actually read this blog from time to time, and probably nod their heads at most of my rants.
2 Operative freemasons were the actual working stiffs, who practiced the trade of the free stone workers. Speculative freemasons were the men they invited in from the community, for instance, the local merchants, or local officials, or the lord of the manor, who were taught by symbols and allegories the philosophical lessons of the free stoneworker's tools. If you're interested in how this all came about, I'd recommend Freemasons for Dummies, by my good friend and brother Chris Hodapp.
3 Or been eradicated until the idiot anti-vaccination crowd's folly comes to full flower in a few more years. Why are so many people completely unable to see reason when an airhead bimbo celebrity promotes unsubstantiated and disproven lies?
4 I also remember handing in dimes every week and pasting 10 cent JNF stamps into little passbooks, and handing the filled passbooks in at the end of the term so we could buy trees for Israel. That was actually a GREAT charity, even if it was money-based. People of my generation still buy trees in Israel for kids' bar and bat mitzvahs and other life cycle events. Gonna need more for the Gaza-bordering areas when the IDF gets done with it. Maybe for Gaza itself, if the IDF does what I think it should and makes a park out of it.
5 And by the way: The absolute BEST disaster-relief charity in America is the Salvation Army. And this is a Jew-boy telling you this. If you are looking for help after a disaster, don't look for the Red Cross. Look for the Salvation Army. They don't care who you are or what your situation is, or if you're a Christian or an atheist, they will help you regardless without asking. And they'll be there and set up long before the Red Cross gets off its arse, and will still be there long after the Red Cross has packed up and gone home -- in large measure because the Salvation Army is community-based and the Red Cross is not.