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The Use and Misuse of Charity: the Luck of the Draw in a Predatory System

The appeal appeared on the Huffington Post. It was one of these Go Fund Me requests. It looked bonafide and the story behind the appeal was compelling: A high-school kid would not be able to attend college if he didn’t get some sort of funding. His parents had cut him off because he was gay and they were religious conservatives of the fundamentalist stripe. So, I sent a small donation along to him and wished him well in a note that accompanied the contribution.

I felt good in the same way that I felt when I had completed an overnight shift at a homeless shelter for which I was the grant writer and a volunteer. It was uncomfortable getting to the assignment, but the rewards were sort of like going to a demonstration. A person can’t help but feel good.

But all of this masks the reality that in a predatory capitalist system there will be some charitable winners and many more losers. In other words, in the real world of grotesquely slanted unequal opportunities, many more in need will lose than win, and the system that produces such high levels of inequality will rejoice in the one or two or few thousands of situations where someone got the help that a humane society needs to provide as a matter of doing its daily business.

Here’s an example from the real life of charity on the streets and it took place at about the same time that I wrote grants for the homeless shelter in Rhode Island. In late June 1989, I was awakened by an all-encompassing sickening smell that permeated my entire house in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The smell was unmistakably oil. Since our house was heated with natural gas and wood, I knew that it could not be a malfunction of the heating and hot water system. And besides it was summer, so heating was not an issue. Getting up and going out to see what was happening, I had to walk only a quarter mile to high ground above the open Atlantic Ocean to see a huge tanker immobile. Helicopters were hovering all around it and once back at home the news was exploding with the details of this oil tanker that had run aground just off of the shores of Jamestown, Rhode Island, only a few miles across Narragansett Bay from the famous historical and tourist destination, Newport.

It took only hours to be connected with a volunteer opportunity at a local environmental group, Save the Bay. My wife Jan did some work with a phone bank and I took calls from individuals and groups that wanted to send money to help with the cleanup. The group already had enough volunteers and professionals who were scouring the local beaches and cleaning oil off of wildlife and working on cleaning up oil slicks in the same area.

During the next day, I would be absolutely amazed at what I found out by answering the group’s phone. Offer after offer came it without any strings attached. It was sort of like: How much can you use? Now, since I had been doing grants for the homeless, I knew the process of getting grant money was a fairly complicated matter, with a search for agencies and foundations that offer money for specific kinds of grants, a call to those groups for their literature, the formal application process that required a very specific budget as to what the homeless shelter would be using the money for, and sometimes an interview at the foundation’s office or an onsite visit by a representative of the foundation. It was not the easiest process, but money for the homeless was fairly “abundant” at the time and the cause had not yet become passé.

The conclusions here are clear. If a person or group can make it onto the charitable radar screen then all might be somewhat well, but if not, then lots and lots of variables come into play and a person and a group have to be at the right place at the right historical time, or the gears of a predatory system will drown that class of people in need out.

And if indeed charity does start at home, close attention is merited by a recent interview with the senior editor of the Real News Network, Paul Jay. In “Is Trump Betraying the American People?” Jay holds the Democratic Party to task for some of its representatives, including Bernie Sanders, for their slavish cheerleading of “The Russians did it in 2016 chorus.” With Michael Moore and Bill Maher verbally attacking Professor Larry Wilkerson in a clip highlighted during the Jay interview, it’s a wonder that those of the left even need the evil of Trump, et al to do us in.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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