Friday, July 16, 2010

A response to Jon's Criticism

I think you're correct in asserting that both Liberals and Conservatives have a pretty bad track record in not delivering assistance to most African nations when it has been needed. (As another aside it also bugs me in cards book that Africa is uniformly an awful, god-forsaken place which ignores the fact that there are many areas in Africa which are really quite stable politically and pleasant to live.)

You're also winning that Bush was one of the best Presidents for Africa ever - however its not something that I often hear Conservatives touting, usually its the Liberals who will give Bush some conciliatory Kudos for this. Furthermore, I don't think you're going to win that aid to Africa is an area consistently pushed by Conservatives and their politicians. Finally, in the book everyone is happy with dropping aid into the quarantined continent, so government aid is not necessarily the main conflict - rather the conflict is over direct assistance in the forms of boots on the ground which goes against the governments quarantine of the African continent.

Now, You are winning that christian conservatives - hopefully a great many - would be interested in going to Africa and helping people in the case of a massive epidemic. However, I find it insulting that it is only Christian Conservatives that are advocating this policy. Card clues us in to the fact that its a conservative thing - and not just a Christian thing - by having Fox News as the only compassionate network willing to fairly air and discuss the wholly Christian demonstrators. I feel strongly that both secular and non-secular Democrats should be represented among the compassionate protectors seeking to bring further aid to Africa. Liberals are probably more likely to be rallying outside the Whitehouse to protest a cruel international policy. Honestly, when have conservatives ever rallied to protest against any US foreign policy? High levels of state security (which in the book is the President's justification for the quarantine that prevents direct assistance) is not something that you typically hear conservatives railing against.

Furthermore, while conservatives do donate more money to charities the strongest correlation for charitable donations isn't along the conservative liberal access - instead it's along the lines of religious, non-religious.

So more charitable donations by conservatives really translates to more church donations. Now, while churches do a lot of good things in the world, concern for sick and dying people is not necessarily the reason people donate - motives such as feelings of piety and social status in the church community probably figure more prominently.

So ya, I still think it's lame for Card to make-out the Left to be so completely apathetic in the face of a cruel international policy toward the continent of Africa. I know Chomsky would be against it - and all us psuedo-intellectual lefties are gonna follow what Chomsky writes.


  1. I agree with much of your response, but you're still mistaken about charity.

    It's tempting to explain away conservative donations as church donations, but the fact is that conservatives even donate more to SECULAR charities than liberals do.

    This difference cannot be accounted for by income, either. Both liberal and conservatives in the US make roughly the same income (some estimate that liberals actually make more money, but this is offset by the fact that liberals are more likely to live in urban areas where the cost of living is higher). And even were it shown that there was an income difference between conservatives and liberals, conservatives still give a larger percentage of their income to charity.

    The most compelling reason I've read that makes sense of the disparity is how liberals and conservatives understand the role of government. Liberals defer the responsibility to alleviate poverty to the government; conservatives view it as more of a personal responsibility. So it's not that liberals care less about the poor. They just think the most effective way to combat poverty is through government programs paid for by their tax dollars. And I'm inclined to agree.

    I'll give you some sources later tonight. I'm in a bit of a hurry. But you might want to check out this article for starters:

  2. I should qualify a couple things. I just read that the same percentage of liberals and conservatives donate to charity. So that's a plus. But the downside is that they donate about a third less.

    And you're right that religion is also a factor (though I think liberals still donate less when it's controlled for). Liberals are more secular than conservatives, and study after study has shown that secularists donate less than the religious. And as I suggested earlier, these aren't just church donations we're talking about.

    As for sourcing, it's looking like the authority on this matter is Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University. So if you want to dig deeper into this stuff, he'd be a name to Google.

    Oh, and some relevant anecdotes: Obama and Biden's tax returns reveal that they gave a paltry amount to charity. Obama gave 6% of his income to charity, and Biden gave--get this--0.4%! Compare that to George W. Bush, who in 2006 gave 12% of his income to charity.

  3. Ya. I definitely think you're winning that Conservatives are personally more charitable. I concede. And it's messed-up how liberals have a tendency to write a blog, or show up at a rally in order to satisfy their charitable feelings rather than actually do something directly to help poor people. I have fallen victim to this modus operandi. I've been a lot happier after having joined Americorps to actually do something for the cause of social justice. And I'll tell you one thing though, there aren't many Conservatives at the non-profit where I work. Conservatives may be good at charity on the side, but I'd argue that they may be less likely than a good Leftist to devote their lives to such pursuits.

  4. I think the issue of foreign aid itself is problematic, not necessarily who gives more of it. Donations (whether it be to charities, NGOs, USAID, etc.), as Zach pointed out, are more of a way to avoid taking real responsibility for suffering occurring in places remote from our own locations. This type of individual "aid" has its origin in guilt, not in any type of sincere compassion for human beings. This helps to explain why "aid" does so little; the root cause of suffering in places like Sierra Leone and Angola lies in the everyday practices of Americans and "foreign aid" does not represent any kind of attempt to shift away from these practices. Aid ultimately is selfish; it only occurs as a way to alleviate our own guilt, i.e. our own suffering. Here's where I make the obvious allusions to Baudrillard: we, in many ways, need the image of the anonymous suffering "African" in order to give away our pity which is an outlet for this reservoir of guilt that is constantly building up in the back of our minds from living in the "first world". "We've got to do something" so we whip out our credit cards and checkbooks and send fifty dollars so someone, somewhere can do something for someone, somewhere else. I could pragmatic arguments about how foreign aid is actually a bad thing, but I think the more important aspect of this debate is the way we conceptualize "foreign aid" in the first place - as something acceptable, even desirable, and something that liberals and conservatives should be competing to do more of. "Foreign aid" is really "domestic aid" in that its impacts are important only insofar that it makes us able to sleep tonight. The real consequence of that $20 I sent to some address in D.C. doesn't matter - I win the moment that envelope hits the bottom of the mail bin. I don't mean to exclude the possibility of sincere "foreign aid" but I just don't think that the way it functions in mainstream politics is even remotely a good thing.

    I also think the way we conceptualize "Africa" is symptomatic of this "domestic aid" mindset; "Africa" exists only as a place, somewhere riddled with violence, chaos, and poverty experienced by very black people. "Africa" isn't a continent, or even a geographic space - it is a discursive one, and one to which we constantly send our pity and our self-righteousness . The complete absence of specificity in the discourse of "Africa" renders it permanently inhospitable and a place that cannot be fixed; it is, in effect, nothing more than a repository for our guilt. Affixed to the image of Africa is desolation and barrenness - there is no vision of a "better" "africa" - only more chaos and violence. No one is committed to anything with respect to "Africa" - only the reassuring thought that a child somewhere may get new shoelaces because of me.

    I don't mean to rag on helping people, I just think that the root cause of suffering is something that, at the very least, is obscured by the politics of "foreign aid", if not perpetuated by it. I think more introspectivity with respect to the way we go about "aiding" people we are unaware of is necessary before we debate about who is doing more of it. I think this is a good discussion and I await your responses (and Nietzsche turns).

  5. Yes. I completely agree. I think Card needs to get a grasp on this before he writes another book about an "African" epidemic.

    I think you're use of Baudrillard is very fitting to this discussion of they way "Africa" is conceptualized and utilized in US politics. For both Liberals and Conservatives the whole space of Africa is a place of suffering - for Liberals this space is a bank where they can deposit their feelings of pity and withdraw feelings of righteous indignation against injustice. Conservatives likewise can deposit their pity and withdraw signals from outside of the superiority for their own christian, capitalistic culture.

    You and Jon have both mentioned that US Foriegn Aid to African countries is a bit of a joke. Chomsky tells us that according to Congress's own estimates 80% of foriegn aid ends up coming back to the US through the multinationals which deliver the goods. So foriegn aid is really domestic aid in more than just your metaphorical sense of appeasing peoples conscience - it's also boosting the US economy.

    I think your critique is very relevant and I'm having trouble trying to find a way to contend against it Mike.

    However, what's you're alternative? Should we no longer send Aid to Africa? Governmental Aid is abysmal, and the NGO's don't do much better, however, I assume there's still some kid somewhere eating a meal today because of some USian decided to donate some money, yes?

  6. I guess my alternative is to do nothing - in the same vein as Zizek's criticism of socialism, doing nothing would at least let the guilt stew, perhaps inaugurating some type of real "revolution" in the form of changing practices in the U.S. Doing nothing also would avoid the masking effect donations have on problems occurring in impoverished regions.

    I think there are also pragmatic arguments to be made against participating in "foreign aid", namely that it exacerbates poverty and empowers violent individuals. Foreign aid, especially foreign aid from the United States, displaces local food producers and devastates infrastructure (]
    ). Furthermore, it creates disincentives for local food production and foreign aid inevitably must be administered by local and tribal governments which are often corrupt and violent, enabling warlords to tighten their control over hungry populations.

    Even if you win the argument that a few charities might actually get food to a few children, the broader problems it causes in terms of exacerbating hunger by harming local food production and expanding warlords' power I think is sufficient to demonstrate my alternative as the best option.