Accidental altruism

How do you practice charity without turning into a Rotarian?

No, strike that. Because the word “charity” may be the problem, in that it triggers so many kneejerk reactions to what we think it means.

So, try again. How do we manage to be spontaneously open and giving as a part of our everyday life without behaving like a TV personality you want to punch or some sanctimonious trustafarian from the development charity industry?

Now we’re getting closer to the roots of the problem.

I’m sure you and I both like to think of ourselves as nice, giving people. Yet we keep reading reports in the “serious” press that people are giving less to charity than they used to. Even when times were harder most people on average incomes gave more, while the Victorian practice of entrepreneurs making their fortune then devoting their time to endowments and “good works” like Andrew Carnegie (or Henry Noble if you want a Manx example) – well, what happened to that?

OK, as 90% of the “factual” matter in “serious” press reports comes from time-saving PR blurbs written by the shadiest charities (in order to shame us into further subsidising them) we can safely discount it. In truth, the public probably regards the staff of major charities as freeloading hypocrites who you’d trust about as far as some random drunk who taps you for a fiver.

Some of that belief may be wilful self-deception, but most of it is quite fair. The charity industry stinks as much as the banking and accounting industry with whom it trades most staff. It even uses the same PR spin merchants as the worst dictators.

At a more basic level, once you’ve seen some “pillar of the community” lying in a bath of baked beans “fur charidee” how do you ever take the concept seriously again? You know that the other 364 days of the year this shameless scrote pulls every scam going to fill his pockets and avoid shelling out to anyone.

So, what to do?

Until it inevitably developed Rotarianism, one hopeful idea was Danny Wallace’s “Random Acts of Kindness” phenomena. RAK devotees practiced “Good Fridays” and “Happy Mondays” on which they – yes – set out to be spontaneously and randomly kind to strangers.

The RAK ethos appeals to me hugely. The lack of “depth” or “logic”, the happy-go-lucky acceptance that we are – all of us – a little clueless and will probably fall flat on our faces but wouldn’t it at least be a good idea to spread a little sweetness and light around, reminds me of orphaned Woodstock era books I rescued in adolescent charity shop forays. For example, Richard Neville’s Play Power and Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution For The Hell Of It.

If this isn’t too oxymoronic, where RAK falls down is that it isn’t random enough, and to overcome that what you need is a tighter format. Setting aside particular times to be altruistic is a start. The bigger problem is how to bypass learned and generally unconscious concepts of the deserving subject.

In particular, the brief era when organised charity chose the subject through a process that involved objective study informed by political and economic analysis is over. We are rapidly reverting to an older era when charity was dispensed by the church to the “deserving poor”, and that is a massive problem.

I think surrealism and 1960’s concepts of aleatoric (chance) art might have an answer. The surrealists, more than any other movement in history, developed art games with absolutely binding rules in order to increase chance, bizarre and beautiful connections or put the artist into unexpected places. On similar lines, you could, for example, decide to be kind to the 10th person you met on a chosen day, or the one you pass in the street at exactly 11 AM. The times, numbers and other deciding factors have absolutely no significance, except to prevent you making a so-called rational choice which is almost inevitably based on an unconscious prejudice.

In following them, you should start to find yourself wondering (often) why you haven’t noticed a need or a type of person before. Hopefully, you should also fall into the habit of automatically being nice to more people more of the time, and not just selected people at authorised times – after which you go back to being asleep to the world.

But mostly you just enjoy yourself, and spread that around.

Advertisements

The word is charity, not church

I had a revealing conversation with some good people this morning. From it I learnt that I’m not the only well meaning liberal concerned by a particularly Manx problem.

In a nutshell, an important local charity is concerned that people don’t get involved because much of the public (inaccurately) think it’s faith-led. This, in turn, is a further problem because after recent scandals many locals now (quite fairly) mistrust evangelicals.

I can’t identify the charity for various reasons, but I can say it’s a tragedy if they’re not trusted by the wider community as they do vital work. It is also a tragedy that the misunderstanding is not of their making. And the greatest tragedy is that this charity exists in order to banish prejudice and increase our understanding of the wider world.

It really matters that when their workers go into local schools to run voluntary activities the kids do not dismiss them as yet another bunch of grasping happy clappies. In fact, Manx kids must engage with such ideas if they are ever to be inspired to do something more productive than shift money round the world while destroying mineral rich (but politically bankrupt) countries in the developing world.

It doesn’t help that the Manx government still have a 19th century arrangement under which major church leaders have regular meetings with social services staff, and are automatically consulted whenever there’s a new initiative. That isn’t a statutory procedure, by the way, just a convention dating back to pre-welfare state days which nobody seems to have questioned.

The real problem may be that the island – effectively – moved straight from the days when charity was dispensed by “the parish” to “the deserving poor” into the Thatcherite dismantling of the welfare state, so never developed the UK system of highly evolved and professional local government. As a result, when Manx civil servants see a social issue looming they cover their ears until the outcry gets too loud to ignore, then throw some government cash at a priest and walk away.

It is also unhelpful that even public spirited Christians rarely have a social circle that goes much further than the churches, so their charitable model doesn’t go beyond religious duty. On the other hand, it is increasingly a problem that UK atheist organisations won’t think about charity or the public and third sectors at all – beyond how to get on a state gravy train where churches have been first class passengers for so long.

So, how do we break out of that circular logic on the Isle of Man whereby whenever someone says “charity” the listener unconsciously thinks “church” and most of us shut off?

One thing is clear. There is no point in saying “the government should do something about it”. As any Manx person with first hand understanding of either local or international issues already knows, our politicians and civil servants know far less than any member of the public who regularly reads a decent newspaper. And they are not interested in being educated.

No, we ordinary members of the public are going to have to grasp the nettle. If we want a decent society we are going to have to take it upon ourselves to reach over the fence, put aside our preconceptions……and start talking.

It’s only a small island. So how hard can that be?

Charity ends at work

Ah well, a bank holiday instead of a day at work on Monday. Thank goodness for that.

Because it is so bad at The Unpleasantness that most days I never know whether to take instruction from one of our perpetually multiplying “line managers” or check if their nappies are full. The saying “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” hardly covers it. Everyone around me seems to be (mis)managing like their lives depend upon it.

The most worrying thing is that somebody else’s might. Though as nobody is encouraged (or even allowed) to be aware of a world beyond the spread-sheet they currently check we will never know about that. They probably think Myopia is one of the lesser known offshore tax havens.

But I shouldn’t be so disparaging of these lovely folk. Why, only yesterday they proudly announced their latest corporate charity scheme.

In a nutshell, this is that people should walk or run about more, monitor themselves and ask others to sponsor them for doing so, and the most prolific over-exercisers (rather than fund-raisers) will get prizes. For an office overrun by sharp-elbowed, cretinously competitive sports nazis, turning the need to appear charitable into a competition was seen as the perfect solution.

It got even sillier when one of the jocks suggested that, in order to get the miles up, the company should hire an exercise bike so that the numpties can pedal in their lunch hour. This will cost in the region of £100 per week, plus there is the logistic problem of what every other lycra-clad lummock does for the hour once the first has nabbed the bike.

Neither was it explained how a finite number of people in a workforce can each sponsor the other or (more importantly) how anybody knows that the exercisers aren’t just lying. Be honest, if your profession is accountancy – and specifically hiding income from tax authorities – would you ever be capable of NOT lying, or of accepting any figure a workmate quoted you as true?

Anyway, in due time we can be sure that a number of smug faces will be photographed holding one of those massive cheques with a figure plucked out of thin air written on it. That happy picture will then appear in the local press, discreetly distanced from the advertisement for our services, thus negating the idea that offshore finance ruins lives.

A welcome refugee

So, what did you do this morning?

Me? I’m just back from Douglas, where I was speaking to a Syrian refugee.

No, you did not misread that. I was in Douglas, though it isn’t a work day, and I was speaking to a Syrian refugee, even though our infinitely wise government has decided the Isle of Man cannot take Syrian refugees. Can I also add that the refugee did not seem to be having a problem adjusting to Manx culture (though to be fair he is being hosted and helped by some of our most cultured citizenry)?

He was Baraa Essay Kouja, the founder of the charity From Syria With Love (see http://fromsyriawithlove.com/ ), which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. The occasion was a private presentation by Baraa on the work of that charity, which is pretty inspirational – especially given that every official body you can imagine seems to want to hinder it.

Can you believe, for example, that FSWL had the greatest difficulty getting UK charitable status, and that every one of the UK high street banks has refused to give them a bank account, citing money-laundering risks as an excuse? Given the involvement of (oh, let’s take some random examples) HSBC, Barclays, Natwest and Lloyds in ensuring deals by the British arms industry are quietly routed through third countries before their deadly product reaches African and Middle Eastern dictator customers, (then to be used on unarmed civilians – in many cases in the same countries), or HSBC’s selfless work in propping up South American drug cartels then that is a bit of a bad joke.

Anyway, this morning was far more pleasant. Due to another appointment, I squeezed in at the back 10 minutes late and missed the introduction, but still caught most of Manx Gaelic choir Caarjyn Cooidjagh‘s performance (with the former – and last serious – Minister for Overseas Development singing inconspicuously in the back row). Baraa then made his presentation, with some video and photographic material, and we were then all free to look around the exhibition proper.

And that was also when I got a chance of a few words with Baraa. As a trained journalist and NUJ member in good faith, I know every malignant troll and throwback in the British Isles will write this off as “fake news” if I did not ask him, so, no, he is not receiving benefits, and, no, he didn’t actually plan to be in the UK or a refugee, and certainly doesn’t see it as a better, or more economically attractive, life. It’s just that as the Syrian government want to kill him for helping refugees in Lebanon it would be a little unwise for him to go home before the bombing stops, and Western governments have put some kind of muzzle on their psychopathic friend, the Syrian president.

Oh, and I still have my wallet too. All that is missing from it is the money used to buy several copies of a book with pictures by kids from four refugee camps. One copy is now in Ramsey Town Library (and the librarian was very pleased to get it), and a second copy will be in my daughter’s school library on Monday.

Speaking of my daughter – I am also the proud owner of a picture by a girl just one year younger than her, who lives in one of the camps and has ambitions to be a journalist (or at least I will be once the exhibition is over and the pictures taken down).

I cannot deny my daughter her dreams. How could I not help another girl with a dream, currently facing far more obstacles because her government would happily kill her (while ours is just too clueless or idle to ensure mine has adequate teachers, text books and other educational facilities)?