By: Mickey Kaus A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance Co.Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer UP FROM ALTRUISM New York magazine recently announced its latest trend: “Doing Good.” The Me Decade, we’re told, is giving way to a stark sort of altruism. “Volunteers around the city are monitoring shelters for the homeless, taking underprivileged children on Saturday outings, and visiting the terminally ill,” say the editors. It’s hard to argue against taking underprivileged children on Saturday outings. Still, something about this predictable zeitgeist flip-flop rang hollow, and it wasn’t just the suspicion that many prosperous New Yorkers aren’t taking underprivileged children on Saturday outings. The point of trend stories, after all, is to be ahead of the curve. Once everyone in New Jersey is taking underprivileged kids on Saturday outings, there’s not much point, is there? Was the problem New York’s silly defense of taxsubsidized high-society charity balls? In part. \(“What would the fashion industry do if women didn’t have to buy wonderful dresses to wear to them? Charity stimulates our economy,” says Mrs. Ezra Zilkha, In part it was the magazine’s unquestioning attitude, which accepted subsidizing the Metropolitan Opera and saving high school dropouts as equally do-gooding. Exhibit A of the new mood, according to New York, is the investment banking firm of Bear Stearns. “In 1982 the firm began requiring its managing partners to donate a percentage of their earnings to charity. It is the only Wall Street concern with such a rule,” reports Jesse Kornbluth. What percentage? Ten percent? 0.000001 percent? Kornbluth never asks the question or, at least, never answers it. Bear Stearns chairman Alan C. “Ace” Greenberg describes how he raises funds for the UJA and United Way: [I]f I call each person who sells us supplies, we get a quick response.” Sound like a shakedown? Hey, back off. This is Trend, not journalism. “Gentile, Jew, we don’t care,” a Bear Stearns partner reveals under Kornbluth’s ruthless questioning. “We love to help human beings.” Despite the Me Decade’s decay, the sense of smug self-satisfaction pervading “Doing Good” is all too familiar, with assorted yuppies displaying their newfound charitable causes as if conducting a tour of their condos. ” ‘Whosoever would be master of all must be the servant of all,’ ” boasts another investment banker, apparently oblivious to the question he’s begging. \(Besides, adds his partner, charitable contributions make “better tax conspicuous nonconsumption. Make a lot of money on Wall Street and then bestow it dramatically on the thankful helpless. Very New York. What is really disturbing about the coming altruism boom, though, is not the altruism itself but the accompanying tendency to confuse it with politics, to treat it as an ideology. Pete Hamill’s contribution to New York’s compassionfest explicitly equates chartity with liberalism all part of “the struggle to help the disadvantaged.” But it’s not just Hamill. Ask today’s state-of-the-art Democratic politician why we should help the poor, and he’ll likely tell you: “compassion.” Compassion has become the all-purpose Democratic password, the thin layer of moral insulation that separates even the most market-oriented, standing-tall Democrat from a selfish Reaganite. Senator Bill Bradley calls for ,`greater caring,” for challenging Americans’ ideas of “what they owe another human being.” “The work of compassion must continue,” says Ted Kennedy. “I’m tired of a president who . . . does not appeal to the great expansive generosity of this nation” \(Joe Most prominently, there’s Mario Cuomo, the man who thinks we should be “strong enough to use the words Cuomo’s rhetoric routinely sets up a contrast between Republicans, who say, “We can’t make it with compassion; it’s mushy-headed and liberal. We have to be hard and macho,” and Democrats, who “look beyond our own welfare to the good of all and . . . reach down to those at the bottom of the ladder and help them up, if only a rung or two.” In his most famous conceit, Cuomo compares the least fortunate members of society to the less fortunate members of a family, an analogy he says “describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be.” You don’t refuse to lend a hand to your brother-in-law when he’s in trouble, do you, even if some of his trouble is his own fault? Cuomo gives compassion a clever twist, though, because at the same time he’s appealing to the generosity of the middle-class majority, he suggests that they, in fact, are the ones “locked out” and entitled to government-funded compassion. Thus does virtue pay tribute to vice, and altruism becomes selfish. It’s a nice trick if you can pull it off. Cuomo tries by painting the family portrait in lurid tones, as an oligarchy where all but the rich are so hard up that they merit some assistance. In his rousing “Tale of Two Cities” address to the 1984 Democratic convention, Cuomo spoke of “middle-class parents [who] watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate,” lumping together the homeless and unemployed steelworkers as a “rabble” whose “pain” was ignored by the “relative few,” the “royalty” leading the good life. But compassion for others or for No. 1 is a miserable basis for liberal politics. It carries the unmistakable implication of dependence and piteousness on the part of those on the receiving end of the sentiment. The demeaning aspect of charity is most evident in private, New York-style do-gooding, with 20 APRIL 3, 1987
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