Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jan. 19: volunteerism

A striking thing about New Brunswick is the frequency of photos in the press of smiling people (volunteers) holding cheques, sometimes giant ones, to hand to smiling recipients. These photos aren't only frequent; they're often a full page or more in just one edition of an Irving paper.

I  haven't seen that anywhere else in the world except in university alumni magazines and self-promoting company publications. There might be occasional such photos in other papers, but with nothing like the frequency of the Irving press.

Then there's the occasional story about some billionaire playing good king Wenceslas to make a donation to some worthy cause.. That will have every brown-noser at Irving press learning how to spell philanthropist, and naming him to fictitious halls of fame.

What the hell, it's good publicity; and it's cheaper than paying taxes or decent salaries.

Now, I have nothing against volunteerism. I grew up with it. My father was scoutmaster and Sunday School superintendent at out our little, neighbourhood church. Years later, I would meet men a dozen or so years older than me who would tell me how he changed their lives for the better.

In my own time, I volunteered for  youth groups, convicts. (We got along well,though I knew so little about that field, I can't imagine I was any help to them.) For at least twenty years, at the height of the Quebec separatist movement, I was on the provincial executive of the English rights group, ending with two years as its chairman. It was enormously difficult, time-consuming and, sometimes, dangerous. I knew from the start it was a losing cause. But the try had to be made.

I have lots of respect for volunteers who collect turkeys and used toys for Christmas, money for schools. What bothers me is the intense celebration of so much volunteerism as if it were a sign of a healthy and caring community.

It's no such thing. If this were a healthy and caring community, there would be no need for so much volunteerism. Giving a turkey and some toys to a needy family is all very well -even if only for one day - but why do we have so many families that need that help?

You're collecting money for supplies for a public school? Good for you. But why doesn't a healthy and caring community supply its schools properly in the first place?

Does the volunteerism do good? It does some good. It also does some bad.

One of my strongest memories of childhood was rotting teeth, and excruciating toothaches as I tried to sleep at night. That was common in my district where few could afford a dentist. The school nurse gave me a note for my parents. A group had created a dental fund for kids like me. I could see a dentist - and it would pay. I never showed that note to my parents. I never saw that dentist. This was charity.

I knew that my parents would be humiliated at the suggestion I had been singled out for charity.

Volunteerism is good and it's admirable. But it is not necessarily a sign of a caring society. It may equally be a sign of a society that doesn't give a damn, that allows its poor to be abused and exploited.

There are those  (many of them in the profession of journalism) who will say that the poor should not feel entitled, that their poverty is their own fault and their own laziness. Right.

The US is well into a period of mass poverty. Is that because they all suddenly got lazy? Was it the poor who destroyed the banking system? Was it the poor who cut taxes of the very rich to zero. In Canada, was it the poor who created the scandalous income gap we have with the very rich taking home millions while other people, working almost as hard as billionaires, try to live on minimum wage?

Are the people of Haiti lazy? Or does earning only two dollars a day have something to do with their poverty?

The problem is that so much of the wealth produced by our labour and our resources is going into the pockets of a very few. Now, that's what I call being entitled.

Reliance on volunteers does not indicate a caring society. Quite the opposite. So why does the Irving press make such a big deal out of it?

This is just a guess. But let's try it.

Those pictures of smiling faces and cheques reinforce the idea that this is a healthy, caring society. It takes attention away from the extent and causes of poverty to concentrate on the things that really aren't doing much to alleviate it. It reinforces the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor; and it adds to the burden of humiliation.

Those pages of photos are propaganda, brain-washing. If this were the healthy and caring society they portray, we wouldn't have nearly so many voluntary causes.

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