Notes on Failure

Fail again. Fail Better. --S. Beckett

Padma Viswanathan

Padma Viswanathan
Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist. Her first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published in 2008. Originally Canadian, she now lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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FEBRUARY 10, 2009 9:19PM

How you really care, if you care.

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On January 18, “The Martin Luther King Day of Service,” I found myself thinking of liberals who recently donned hair shirts or boxing gloves (I prefer both) in response to the bewildering assertions made in Arthur C. Brooks's new book "Who Really Cares." As has now been widely discussed, Brooks says that, contrary to what liberals would like to believe, we give less to charity and work fewer volunteer hours than conservatives.

What's going on?  

Let's start with charity. Brooks says that while liberals urge greater government spending for the amelioration of social conditions, we are not as willing to donate to charities for the same purpose. Conservatives say that liberals are more willing to spend "others' money" than their own, which notion is just silliness, because of course we all pay taxes. The point is that they think that voluntary giving is better than involuntary giving. I, as an agonized equivocating liberal, have always objected to that very voluntariness since I think all members of a community are entitled to some measure of equality; that it's not up to the "haves" to decide how much they're going to give to the "have nots." Until I start disagreeing with myself. 

There's a maxim attributed to a dozen different men of public life that varies on this theme: "Not to be a socialist at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head." Any bleeding heart with a brain grows to realize that governmental efforts to redistribute wealth are highly, often fatally, imperfect, and that private organizations, flawed as they also are, might often do a better job, if only because they often have narrower mandates.  So we are all trying, with halting unsuccess, to reconcile the desire to do good against the impossibility of knowing how. The key problem is that our liberal faith in the idea that governments are best suited to the work of creating social equality may be hampering our levels of giving to our causes. And that, of course, is bad news for our causes.

When I think about the organizations I give to, I would not call them “charities,” but only because I don’t like that term. I give to humanitarian relief organizations; I give to social justice organizations; and I hate the idea that there is anything about my culture, liberal culture, that causes us to be ungenerous—especially since some of my pet causes, such as Amnesty International, refuse government support as a policy. Conservatives may gripe about taxes but we’re all paying at the same rates, so we have little to feel self-righteous about. 

Okay, that's charity picked apart and left unresolved. Fortunately, as an overeducated liberal, I live for ambiguity. Let's move on to volunteerism.  

I wonder if one of the reasons fewer liberals appear to volunteer is that they are more likely to choose careers with service, not wealth, as a primary objective. While I know a number of liberals in the financial or corporate sectors, I have met very few conservatives in any of the social-issue or educational concerns where I have volunteered and worked. Is it possible that conservatives are volunteering to compensate, socially or spiritually, for working predominantly in fields with profit as a primary motive?

I became a writer not mainly because writing’s my only talent, or because it allows me the pretense that I spend my days making sense of the world, or because I work for myself, but mainly because, in my idealistic youth, writing seemed to be the best contribution I could make to the world, egotistical as even that sounds now.

My philosophy was to spend my time on work I believed in and not worry about whether I was paid or not, provided I could meet a modest bottom line. (My grandmother told me that my reasoning was flawed: that if I could earn well, I could afford to do more good in the world. Brooks may think she was right.)  So when I decided to become a writer, I started writing more, but because I had never really cared whether I was paid for my work, I didn’t really care, at first, whether I was paid for writing, either. The point was to write interesting things about deserving people and topics. But I often was paid, even if it worked out to a buck or two an hour. Is that volunteer work—taking on drastically underpaid work because you think it worthy, though you are capable of doing much more lucrative things with your time?

            Most artists think of their work as a service: more than education, it is elevating for those who enjoy it, but not really optional, in a healthy society. Sometimes it’s irritating that remuneration is one of the few ways said society has of demonstrating that what we do is valued. We will do it, whether or not we are paid for it, but I don’t think it counts as volunteer work because it appears essentially selfish and is often characterized that way.

So perhaps we can fudge Brooks’s distasteful bottom line by expanding our ideas of what we consider volunteerism: how do we assess work undertaken without much of an eye to material gain? Does it count if it does lead to material gain? Any kind of volunteer work counts as a resume line, so, however indirectly, it can materially benefit the donor. And this is what Brooks is advocating: he “sells” volunteer work and charitable giving not primarily by talking about how they benefit the putative beneficiaries, but about how they benefit the givers, with greater prosperity, health, and happiness.

But then Brooks also tells us that the average liberal income is, by a narrow margin, higher than it is for conservatives. If liberals give less, though, doesn’t this contradict his assertion that giving more leads to prosperity? The book is critiquable on numerous fronts and some of his conclusions are not really supported by his data as he presents it. Although he is resolutely moderate, he is explicitly biased toward charity, and this leads him through some pretty twisty turns of logic as he tries to come up with causes for the trends he has observed.

Faulty speculations on causes, though, don’t change the numbers . If liberals are willing to pay higher taxes for a just society, we should be equally willing to donate time and money privately toward the same end.

Brooks does report one weird little statistic in his intro, though, that he doesn’t discuss and that, for me, calls much of his data—largely based on self-reporting—into dispute. The book says "Liberal young Americans in 2004 were also significantly less likely than the young conservatives to express a willingness to sacrifice for their loved ones: A lower percentage said they would prefer to suffer than let a loved one suffer, that they are not happy unless the loved one is happy, or that they would sacrifice their own wishes for those they love." 

This is intended to bolster Brooks’s basic contention that liberals, despite their publicly proclaimed compassion, behave more selfishly than conservatives, but what we have here is not a report of bad behavior but an admission of basic badness. Who on earth would say this about themselves? Are liberals self-hating? Are conservatives self-glorifying? Or is all of what Brooks has to say fundamentally suspect? That one factoid led me to wonder whether liberals may have been a bit more honest on these surveys than conservatives were, describing themselves as they are, not as they wish they were. It seems unlikely that conservatives are truly better people, unless the reason we’re liberal is that we’re really worse people and we’re trumpeting values of generosity and caring to help us make up for it.

For this essay, I wrote out and deleted, several times, a laundry list of causes and organizations I have given my time and money to over the years. In my twenties, I gave so much time that even my parents despaired of my ever earning, and now, with less time, I give money… mea culpa, I couldn’t find anything on Jan. 18 to fit my schedule, apart from my vague antipathy to single-day demonstrations of  that sort, but then a couple of days later, I… nah, never mind. Apart from making this long piece even longer, that impulse seemed defensive, the written equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and going “la, la, la.”

Revolutions are, contrary to appearances, both incremental and subject to shifts in direction. Americans are exiting a time of profound disillusionment with government, and wondering what our recent triumph of popular will will amount to: seems like a great time to revisit our assumptions. Brooks’s findings are as good a reason as any for that revisit. 


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I love your direct sarcasm towards the conservative mindset of liberals. I loved your post immensly. Speaking as someone who dables in various artforms, I can honestly say that writing and my other "dables" are a form of service. Anyone who finds themselves with a gift (s) are meant to share their..."dabblings" with everyone else. "What's the point of living if nobody's watching?" Hope to hear more from you..