Thursday, November 23, 2006

Quiet reflection after the guests have gone home

In one of our downtime moments this morning, between baking pies and turkey-bastings, before the hordes descended, Mom handed me the US News & World Report, opened to Mortimer Zuckerman's column (available online here). I didn't have much chance to finish it until just now, that the guests have gone home again.

Well, Thanksgiving does seem to be the theme of the week, I guess. Zuckerman wrote about the American tendency toward giving and being seen giving...
We are blessed by our history. The early immigrants came mostly from countries with a strong, central government, a dominant church, and an energetic aristocracy. Central government assumed the responsibility for the public good, with its costs underwritten by taxes. America, by contrast, was a young, frontier society with no tradition of strong, central government, with no state religion and no established aristocracy. When American pioneers wanted to raise a church or a school or a hospital in their new communities, they had to build it themselves. One farmer couldn't put up a barn by himself, so individual farmers called on friends and neighbors, and when they needed help, the favor was promptly returned. The party the farmer threw for his neighbors after the barn was completed lives on in the wonderfully American phrase "raising the roof."
and how much a part of our culture it really is, as compared to...
Other rich countries have a far higher proportion of hospitals, libraries, and universities-all funded by the state. This reduces the sense of community. The commonplace cry is "Why don't they do something about it?" instead of "Why don't we do something about it?" Many Europeans believe that simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens. It is an attitude that is beginning to change somewhat, given the American successes-the "thousand points of light" that the elder President Bush commended. But European governments vary from the stingy to the downright mean in their attitude to philanthropy. Charities in Britain, for instance, have recently been told by the Charity Commission that their endowments could be seized: You can be sure the British Scrooge won't be funding the kinds of imaginative ventures the private donors did.
In other words, by its very nature, in contrast to others', our nation's foundation is built of "If not me, then who?"

But I think he could take this, extend the idea beyond simple charitable acts, beyond barn-raising, beyond rebuilding after disasters, beyond all that. While Zuckerman points out the weaknesses in our system (e.g. the poor in America get lower-quality medical and early education than foreign counterparts), he nonetheless fails to remember how our tendency toward charity goes beyond simply writing checks or building houses.

The people who believe that charity must begin at home, the people who repeatedly say, "If not me, then who?" are also the ones who believe we are the ones to help relieve total strangers of the pain of living under a savage despot. Because Americans believed something had to be done about one threat to all humanity, it was dealt with. The ones who don't rely upon the government to make decisions for the masses expect their government to act when others need, for example, military help. Our civilian volunteers couldn't take down Saddam Hussein and stop his rape squads, but our volunteer armies could, and they did. And they remain in that country, trying to help those good people rebuild decent lives after decades of oppression. Our volunteer military is doing the right, the charitable thing.

If not ours, then whose?

Europe, the United Nations seem incapable of doing anything constructive against murderous legions -- they seem disinclined, in fact, to risk their small, crooked comforts in order to do the right thing for millions of innocents. Socialism, then corruption, and nobody is willing to try, any more, to stop deliberate attempts at mass murder, at genocide. In fact, they are eager to support murderers, either because it suits them financially, or it suits their prejudices.

And, so, it comes down, again, to the question: "If not me, then who?"

As Zuckerman points out, we are a charitable nation. We must never allow that to change.

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