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The Orthodoxy of Charity by Kathleen R. Smythe

I, like many, know that I live well and that others do not. I know, for example, that half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day. But, what is not as clear is the fact that my fine life is linked to the not-so-fine-life of three billion others in direct ways. This was made clear to me one recent evening at a charity fundraiser dinner for Haitian slave children—but it could have been for any cause seeking to help the several billion people worldwide who suffer daily.

Jim, an older man who has striven to live according to his principles, and lately, in solidarity with the poor in an inner city neighborhood of Cincinnati, called the night a success. The speakers had been good—fine storytellers each—and not long-winded. The turnout was impressive for a weeknight—more than three hundred people had come to learn about the new foundation that was seeking to end child slavery in Haiti.

I fear, though, it had been a success much like Alan Greenspan’s tenure as Chief of the Federal Reserve Bank had been declared a success until very recently. Because for the last few decades, an economic orthodoxy limited the number of people who had the training and temperament to ask unconventional questions and to think about alternative economic ways, such as regulation of banking and investment. We became locked into a narrow way of thinking about our economy, what was important, and what was possible.

Similarly, I think our notions of charity are trapped inside an orthodoxy that is fueled by our economic beliefs and supported by our lack of understanding of the global reach of U.S. corporate, economic, and political power, as well as our lack of experience in engaging our political system. Our recent presidential election is certainly a promising example of what increased political engagement can accomplish, but we need far more experience than this.

If one were to question the success of the foundation’s inaugural dinner, one would have to ask about the orthodoxy surrounding the charity benefit dinner. For starters, how does one judge the balance of benefits that resulted? On the one hand, more people became aware of the inhumane living conditions of thousands of Haitian children and were likely in the future to support the foundation in its work to send them to school. On the other hand, three hundred plus people drove ten miles or more to the event, a three-course dinner for the same number of people was prepared, served and consumed, and attendees had preened and shopped in order to make fine appearances. That level of consumption and display relies on an economic system that is highly exploitive, a system with which the impoverished nation of Haiti is deeply tied.

More importantly, one would have to ask why, two weeks before a national election, none of the speakers ever publicly questioned or noted the obvious link between a world economy and, specifically, multiple U.S. administrations that have pursued policies of intervention, free trade, and cheap labor at the expense of the marginalized, including those in Haiti, for the benefit of the elite. According to Paul Farmer, when slaves revolted on the island of Haiti (then called Saint Domingue) at the end of the 18th century and declared their independence from the French in 1804, no nation, including the United States, recognized their existence. In 1825, in exchange for continued independence, the French forced Haiti to pay a debt for the losses of land and labor that occurred due to the slave revolt; repayment terms crippled them into the twentieth century. In 1915, the U.S. occupied Haiti, brought back forced labor and created new institutions, like the army. They stayed until 1934. When Aristide, a Catholic priest, took power in 1990, Haiti was the poorest country in the world and had suffered under brutal dictatorships for decades. The U.S. administration feared Aristide’s liberation theology that took the interests of the poor as the primary agenda of his policy. Thus, they supported opposition groups who managed to overthrow Aristide in 1991. The U.S. then returned him to power in 1994. When he won re-election again in 2000, the U.S. cut off Haiti’s development aid ostensibly over some disputed local and parliamentary elections. In 2004, the U.S. forced Aristide from power and delivered him to French Equatorial Guinea, even though he was Haiti’s most trusted politician.

That none of the above history was recognized or acknowledged at the inaugural dinner can only be due to a reigning orthodoxy that assumes that charitable aid is the only way out of poverty and that political action is beyond the realm of ordinary citizens.

To be sure, the foundation will send some slave children to school, but by their own admission they cannot end the slave system. Though they are working on a national conference to address the issue in Haiti, such a conference leaves out the major players and forces at the international level (as did the inaugural dinner).

Is it a sign of the foundation’s realism or our delusion that we are content, as we sit in our fine clothes, eating more than most slave children get in a day, and contemplate sponsoring a child—yet we never have the courage to name the orthodoxy that has such a claim on us? An orthodoxy that makes eating a fancy meal in fancy clothes seem like a solution to global poverty. An orthodoxy that has weakened our capacity to critique the powerful political and economic institutions that frame our materially rich lives at the cost of others’ material deprivation.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, claims that our international aid efforts should not just try to save lives but to understand why those lives are in danger. Echoing economist and Nobel-Prize winner Amartya Sen, he continues that when it comes to aid and charity, we need to make sure that we are responding with reason, not just with feeling. Pictures of Haitian slave children abounded at the dinner, a clear strategy for evoking emotion. Their place of prominence in the midst of a void of international political and economic history is dangerous.

I worry that the child slavery foundation and all of us there that evening will come across as the British women in the South African film, “Maids and Madams.” They proclaim their distaste for apartheid while being served tea by their African maids. They started “Centres of Concern” for maids to have a place to go on their afternoon off so that they might learn to drive, learn English or learn to type, etc. Yet, they noted themselves that in many ways they failed to be the revolutionary force they could have been had they become more engaged in the political and economic questions that most harmed native South African women. As U.S. students watch the 1980s video, they see the ways in which the women were trapped in the system, perpetuating the system, and yet thought of themselves as critics of it and, thus, somehow, not quite so caught up in it as others. I suspect others will look back on us and such events as the inaugural dinner with the same astonishment (if not contempt) at our own inability to use history as a lens for understanding our present unwillingness to act.

Didn’t mass institutionalized and racialized slavery accompany the mercantilism of the 1500s through 1700s, as European nations sought to compete with each other as they amassed wealth? Worldwide, the end of slavery was marked by a gradualism that entrenched the property—and slave-owning classes as disproportionate benefactors of economic growth at the expense of former slaves and their descendants who became indentured servants or menial laborers. Why, then, are we surprised when a subsequent period of unprecedented greed and globalization has produced the largest number of slaves the world has ever seen, according to Benjamin Skinner’s book on modern slavery, A Crime So Monstrous? If we saw the system for what it is, if we knew our history as one of a centuries-long trajectory of wealth accumulation by the few at the expense of the majority, would we not be moved to act at an institutional and policy level as well as at an individual level? And isn’t it likely that many of the roots of child slavery in Haiti are found here at home in our government’s policies and our corporate institutions?

At best, a fancy dinner sends a conflicted message to those in attendance regarding the problem of child slavery and its root causes. At worst, it absolves us, as comfortable beneficiaries of an orthodoxy that we hesitate to critique, of any need to struggle politically on behalf of others. To solve the problems of our globe is going to take the hard but very rewarding work of systemic change.

And, this systemic change will necessitate a number of steps. First and foremost, is ensuring that we are properly educated about our country’s and corporations’ roles in the world. Students at the university where I teach are consistently surprised by the ways in which the United States has acted across the globe, particularly over the last century. This means that they have been “educated” for twelve years with little introduction to the United States’ history of foreign and economic policy. Moreover, it means, in many cases, that my course is the first one after one or more years at college in which they have been exposed to such issues. We must commit ourselves to holding our schools, at all levels, not only accountable for global education (which is often equated with multicultural education) but for education that turns the lens on our faults as well as our feats.

The second way in which we need to act is as citizens and activists. As a people, we have been duped into believing that consumption is the highest level of societal engagement. And, if we don’t really believe that, then we likely believe that making a contribution to a national organization is a high-level political act.

Robert Bellah and others were writing about individualism and American politics in the 1980s in their popular book, Habits of the Heart. They argued that successful social and political movements are those in which the individual finds fulfillment and dignity in relation to and working with others. By this standard, giving $100 to Haitian slave children does not add to personal dignity or fulfillment or to effective politics.

The result of such civic and political disengagement, as Robert Putnam has argued in his magisterial work, Bowling Alone, has been an erosion of social capital that builds meaningful communities and promotes civic work. As individuals, family members, co-workers, bosses, students, and teachers, we need to be open about our own levels of political engagement, and committed to deeper engagement with the help and support of those around us.

There are multiple issues about which most of us feel strongly. Visits to our congressional representatives’ offices with messages about our concerns, letters and emails are all important. A willingness to devote some of our time that normally goes to our 50 to 60-hour work weeks or surfing the internet must be put toward political engagement. Such a shift would go a long way to simultaneously decreasing our material consumption while increasing our knowledge and political engagement. But, we would be amiss if we thought that the benefits of such actions are only political—they will be radically social as well. As Sam Smith wrote recently in The Progressive Review, we need living room salons, music, art, and “unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions” dedicated to progressive causes. If our “political” activity is consumption in disguise, such as a fundraising dinner, then we are likely acting at a minimal level. If our activity, instead, promotes face-to-face meetings and gatherings where learning and acting together is the focus, not eating or buying, then it is far more likely that we are promoting social rather than material capital and, thus, working for systemic change.

Kathleen R. Smythe teaches African History at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently teaching about and researching issues pertaining to globalization and development from the African perspective. Her first book, Fipa Families, was published in 2006 and investigates African and Catholic missionary ideas about children and socialization in Tanzania in the twentieth century. She and her family raise vegetables, fruit, and chickens in their suburban yard and are members of a vegetable and meat CSA at a nearby farm where they work for some of their food. She can be reached at: smythe@xavier.edu.

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