Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Choruses Of Condemnation

     If there’s anything more uniform than the disapproval one will evoke by dissenting from the Left-Right Gospel of “compassion,” my detectors can’t register it. We hear the exhortations to “compassion” from a multitude of sources: political, social, mock-charitable – I’ll get to that – and religious. Indeed, one of the priests who acts as a weekend celebrant at my parish seems unable to utter a sentence that doesn’t have the word “compassion” in it.

     I’ve never been more infuriated by any message – and this one masquerades as some sort of public-service pitch.

     “Compassion.” What does it mean, Gentle Reader? Do you know? I once thought I did:

     Compassion: n. Literally, suffering with another; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another; pity; commiseration.

     ...but the multiplicity of applications it endures today has made me wonder whether my essentially etymological approach to the meanings of words is at all relevant.

     In political usage, it seems to mean “Do what we tell you and shut up about it.” In the commonest social usage, it seems to mean “Stop having standards.” In mock-charitable usage, it seems to mean “Send us money so our huge staff won’t have to find real jobs.” And in religious usage...no, forgive me, I can’t go on; it’s too early in the morning for me to endure another attack of outrage-powered nausea. I’ll emit a tirade instead.

     A very long time ago, at the old Palace of Reason, I posted an essay titled The Circle Of Care. The complete text follows:

     I came of age in the Sixties, a time when America was gradually being turned upside down. And that having been said, I'll spare you any soliloquy about the Sixties. It's the upside-down part that matters.

     I don't recall exactly when I learned about the duty of charity toward the less fortunate, but it was probably in my Catholic grammar school. The nuns were quite insistent about the obligation to help one's fellow man, when he was in genuine need. Every classroom had a "poor box," filled by contributions from the students. Its contents were periodically totaled and used for some charitable undertaking -- and I don't mean buying a color television for a family that didn't yet have one, or dragging a "homeless" man into a government-run shelter; I mean providing food or clothing for a struggling family that hadn't quite managed to make ends meet that month. Blauvelt parish, a blue-collar sector of Rockland County, New York, always had a few such.

     A lot of things come to mind about that poor box and its uses, but none so strongly as this: no one ever suggested that the money be sent far away, to people none of us knew personally. It was to be employed right there, in Blauvelt parish, among the people we knew. This was so obvious, so fundamental to the concept of charity, that the contrary idea was never considered.

     "Charity" derives from the Latin word "caritas," the concern for others that springs from personal connection. A related word of Greek derivation is "sympathy," the ability to "feel with" another person. These are not relations one can truly have with faceless and nameless strangers at a distance.

     True charity requires proximity, for at least two reasons. First, the necessary personal connection, the sense that one is helping one's own, fails at any great remove. Second, human fallibility and weakness guarantee that, just as some will fail to prosper on their own, others will fail to employ charity properly; indeed, to receive money from others sometimes makes one's troubles worse. When this occurs, the giver must give no further, for other measures -- criticism, instruction, discipline -- are clearly indicated. With any separation between the benefactor and his beneficiary, it becomes impossible to know whether help helps in fact, or only in theory and intention.

     Compare this ancient, common-sense approach to charity, preserved and perpetuated by all the great religious institutions of Man, to the modern concept. Today, our media would have us believe that charity is about voting for tax-funded, government-administered programs to redistribute our income to others we don't know. Some of the supposed beneficiaries are in far places where America and Americans are routinely vilified for their prosperity and derided for their generosity. Whatever rules modern charity observes are determined and enforced by salaried bureaucrats who pay no costs for any mistake. Volunteers and private institutions that attempt to take a role are tolerated, but distrusted. The apostles of modern charity would prefer that all of it be under the watchful eye of government monitors, to insure that no misleading messages about the importance of sobriety, continence, or self-reliance are packaged with the gifts.

     Obviously, there's been some change to the concept. I'd like to leave aside the political implications of this change for a moment and concentrate on the inversion of the circle of care.

     If proximity was regarded as the most important of the requirements of the old concept, it is considered no better than optional under the new one, and quite possibly a detriment. If personal concern, for both the bodies and the souls of others of one's direct acquaintance, was the fuel for the charity of old, the motive power of the new charity is rules: rules that direct the bureaucrat to shower largesse without regard for its actual effects, and rules that punish the citizen brutally if he attempts to avoid "contributing."

     The new concept of charity first rose over the old one in the late Sixties, when the American welfare state began its explosive growth. In the years since then, we've seen many other things explode as well: crime, vice, filth in the streets, and social pathologies such as fatherlessness and illegitimacy whose effects have eclipsed even the darkest predictions.

     Meanwhile, law-abiding, self-supporting Americans of the cities, they who are mulcted for the funds that support the new charity, have been drawing in upon themselves, isolating themselves as best they can from the madness that surges around them. Their circles of care have contracted to hold only themselves and their immediate families.

     Count Leo Tolstoy once spent a night wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, giving to the poor whom he encountered until his pockets were empty and his energy was spent. At the end of his sojourn, those to whom he'd given were a little better off for a short time, but he knew and admitted that he'd made no lasting difference in their lives, that as soon as they'd exhausted the night's benison, the darkness would return. He concluded that one should act with love toward those whom God has placed in his path, rather than to ride forth and scatter his substance widely and without regard for efficacy.

     Who are the needy whom God has placed in our path? Are they not our family members, neighbors and friends? Is it not these whom our circle of care should encompass?

     I meant every word. I still do.

     My understanding of charity utterly lacks “compassion,” in the dictionary sense. It is unproductive to “suffer with” another person. If you feel charitable toward him, your appropriate response should be to relieve his suffering, if you can do so without doing harm.

     That’s not what the contemporary apostles of “compassion” appear to want, at least if we judge from what their actions have produced. They point to this or that supposedly “disadvantaged” class – perhaps the fatherless children of promiscuous and dissolute single women – say “Have you no compassion?” and demand that we fund idleness, promiscuity, disdain for the social norms, and miscellaneous forms of dissolution – today in America, with funds enough to purchase lives roughly equivalent to our own. Herbert Spencer noticed the consequences more than a century ago:

     On hailing a cab in a London street, it is surprising how frequently the door is officiously opened by one who expects to get something for his trouble. The surprise lessens after counting the many loungers about tavern-doors, or after observing the quickness with which a street-performance, or procession, draws from neighbouring slums and stable-yards a group of idlers. Seeing how numerous they are in every small area, it becomes manifest that tens of thousands of such swarm through London. “They have no work,” you say. Say rather that they either refuse work or quickly turn themselves out if it. They are simply good-for-nothings, who in one way or another live on the good-for-somethings – vagrants and sots, criminals and those on the way to crime, youths who are burdens on hard-working parents, men who appropriate the wages of their wives, fellows who share the gains of prostitutes; and then, less visible and less numerous, there is a corresponding class of women.

     Is it natural that happiness should be the lot of such? Or is it natural that they should bring unhappiness on themselves and those connected with them?...

     “But surely we are not without responsibilities, even when the suffering is that of the unworthy?”

     If the meaning of the word “we” be so expanded as to include with ourselves our ancestors, and especially our ancestral legislators, I agree. I admit that those who made, and modified, and administered the old Poor Law, were responsible for producing an appalling amount of demoralization, which it will take more than one generation to remove. I admit, too, the responsibility of recent and present lawmakers for regulations which have brought into being a permanent body of tramps, who ramble from union to union; and also their responsibility for maintaining a constant supply of felons by sending back convicts into society under such conditions that they are almost compelled again to commit crimes. Moreover, I admit that the philanthropic are not without their share of responsibility; since, that they may aid the offspring of the unworthy, they disadvantage the offspring of the worthy by burdening their parents through increased local rates. Nay, I even admit that these swarms of good-for-nothings, fostered and multiplied by public and private agencies, have, by sundry mischievous meddlings, been made to suffer more than they would otherwise have suffered. Are these the responsibilities meant? I suspect not.

     [From The Man Versus The State.]

     I maintain that every supposedly “charitable” interference in the American economy by the apostles of “compassion” has led to the same degeneration in 21st Century American society as Spencer observed so trenchantly in 19th Century England. Yet it is they who catechize us.

     The first rule of the most interventionist of all occupations, medicine, is Primum non nocere: “First, do no harm.” An ethical physician is aware of the fragility of the human body. He knows that to toy with it casually is far more likely to do harm than good. That’s why diagnosis must precede treatment – indeed, why an ambiguous diagnosis is the most dangerous of all. Far better to observe a little longer, gather a little more data, than to administer drugs, surgery, or other treatment without firm assurance that it will conduce to the patient’s benefit and not his detriment.

     There are exceptions, of course. A man who is visibly dying before one’s eyes must be regarded as in extremis, which justifies far more risk than a largely healthy man with an ailment that’s not obviously life-threatening. But such cases are not the norm. Neither is a largely peaceful and prosperous society one that justifies dramatic invasions of its modus operandi to relieve marginal suffering. Yet governments have done exactly that. In so doing they’ve produced tragedy that threatens the bounds of description – and the tragedy has not been confined to those to whom they applied their “charity.”

     Demands for sacrifice in the name of “compassion” will naturally evoke the expectation of subsequent improvements. When the improvements never manifest – when large-scale social and economic deterioration ensue instead – we get reactions like this one:

     Yeah, if you’re a normal American, you’re pretty much the root of all evil. You’re the worst of the worst. You suck.

     Welcome to Political Three Card Monte. Whatever the issue, you lose.

     Please read it all. It isn’t meanness of spirit. It isn’t a callous disregard for others’ suffering. It’s the working out of a natural law. This year, as columnist Kurt Schlichter observes, it’s produced an “outsider revolution” – in both major parties, at that – that has the political elite quaking with fear. What was once called “compassion fatigue” is now a widespread, heartfelt rejection of the “compassion gospel.” The choruses of condemnation our “betters” have drowned us in for wanting to keep what we’ve earned, to preserve the peace of our neighborhoods, and to enjoy our traditional rights as Americans have ceased to have the desired effect. Peak “compassion” is behind us; the descent to sanity has commenced.

     The Establishmentarians might succeed in retaining their grip on the levers of power, but it’s become doubtful verging on impossible that they’ll succeed in bludgeoning us further with the “compassion” stick.


Dystopic said...

Charity done for one's immediate circle also tends to be much more efficient. Resources are often reused, or maximized effectively. For instance, if one of my family members could not find work and needed a place to stay, the cost would be far lower for me to take him in for awhile, than for the government to tax me to pay a landlord to let him stay somewhere else.

Since it is a more efficient use of resources, more bang for the buck, more people could be helped in total this way.

This is something that Progressives fail to understand, because their goal is not to actually help anyone, but rather to secure the State's role as the middleman. With his customary slice of the action, of course.

Tim Turner said...

"I think I'm right and fairly smart. And even if I'm not, I'm at least fair."

"If my parents were good, certainly I learned from them. If my parents sucked, I've learned from that, too. But the REAL truth is, I've learned from what I've seen, and I know what I know"

Fran, I submit that is the thinking of a majority of people. It's certainly mine until I read some of your screeds or others' that post facts about crime, immigration, the historical metamorphosis of freedom, etc.

My point is, yes, there are bad guys who will use any means and play any strength to better themselves at others' expense, be they criminals, immigrants, politicians, poor, rich, climate scientists, or whatever.

But I think *most people* aren't inherently bad. And yet, most of us are thinking those quotes I posted above: "I'm not evil or bad or stupid. What I believe may not be exactly right, but *surely* I'm not stupid or deceived by others!"

What you claim about compassion, and how it's meaning has changed, is based on peoples' minds being changed by something they didn't recognize. What you claim about immigration, black crime statistics, politicians' grasp of power . . . it's all something that happens over time and that goes against what we WANT to believe because we want to be fair and believe the best of people and things.

I am not a devout Christian and cannot (nor would not) quote you scripture. But it was obvious to me even in my teens and twenties that Disney was hope and fairy tales, and the real world DID have bad guys. And the bad guys didn't all look or sound like Snidely Whiplash or Cruella DeVille.

The trouble is, we all (mostly) think we're rational and want the best, but we're all personal, selfish, short-sighted, flawed, operating with insufficient data and make mistakes.

A Constitution, a nation of laws, a populace that BELIEVES in individual responsibility and worth, yet with a society that scorns and repudiates bad behavior, is what Jefferson, Franklin and others were striving for, I think.

This is not what we have now. We never had it before, and Obama was too cute by half to diminish the fact that we once did.

The problem is, if *this* didn't work, what will? I can imagine a benign monarchy (or some such) that will establish freedom, individual rights, property and justice as the best to which men can aspire.

But if the leftists, statists, and clawing mobs can overturn this, what hope is there?

I can imagine an answer based on natural law, the nature of life itself and capitalism. But the folks who claim state-sponsored compassion and social justice as the epitome of all politics won't agree.