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Richard Cohen

Conspicuous Compassion

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page A19

The thing you have to love about George W. Bush is that his deepest feelings seem evident on his face. It was, in fact, his face -- joyless, lacking almost all expression -- that told you precisely what he thought about the current effort by the United States to win friends in the Muslim world by raining money on tsunami-afflicted nations: not much. As almost everyone knows, and as the Beatles once sang, money can't buy me love.

In fact, given the way the United States has gone about the business of charity, it could just buy some seething anger. From the president on down, it has become the stated purpose of the aid not only to help the victims of the tsunami but to establish our credentials as a supremely good guy. "We're showing the compassion of our nation in the swift response," Bush said at the White House the other day.

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Colin Powell, dispatched to what the State Department calls "the region," made a similar point about American aid and the Muslim world: "I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action."

It's hard to quibble with any of these sentiments, or with the assertion that America is a good and charitable nation. It is also hard to quibble with the assertion that the Bush administration was trying desperately to play catch-up. Its initial response to the tsunami had been woefully slow and low-keyed, and the president had not roused himself from brush-cutting and other vacation pursuits to represent us all and to say, merely and in awe, that something terrible had happened and we were sorry. For too long, the United States had a chief executive but hardly a head of state.

That opportune moment is gone and will not reoccur. Nor will our money -- a generous $350 million in government funds -- suddenly make us the darlings of the Muslim world. As the late Susan Sontag bravely pointed out in a New Yorker essay published right after Sept. 11, 2001, those terrorist attacks were in response to American policy in the Middle East -- not, as Bush has said repeatedly since, because Islamic radicals cannot abide freedom. No amount of money is going to change the fact that Jerusalem remains in Israeli hands and the House of Saud rules Saudi Arabia -- and the United States, understandably, likes it that way.

That is the truth, and we must not be disappointed when our aid, both public and individual, buys us little -- as, in fact, it should. Long ago, the great Jewish sage Maimonides promulgated his Eight Degrees of Charity. "The highest degree," he wrote in the year 1180, is a gift or loan that makes the needy person self-sufficient. But only "a step below" is charity given "in such manner that the giver knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom it is that he takes" -- in other words, charity "for its own sake."

For many of us, this is an impossible standard. We want -- we often seek -- recognition (yellow bracelets), and we expect gratitude. This may explain why so much of the money recently donated to international aid organizations has been earmarked for tsunami relief. We see the victims on television. They are the ones we want to help, not the faceless victims of ordinary poverty, disease and modest disasters. If we can't see it, we don't give. I am not pointing fingers. I fully understand. My donation to the Red Cross was earmarked for tsunami relief.

But as I think Maimonides understood, the reciprocal of gratitude is resentment. This is especially the case when the charitable act is more about the donor -- oh, how good we are -- than it is about the recipient. In the end, it will not be gratitude we get but just more resentment. The rich -- rich people, rich nations -- are not beloved for their charity. On the contrary, they are resented for their wealth.

Bush's face the other day suggested a certain appropriate disquietude. Maybe a residual New England rectitude caused him to recoil from a bidding war for the hearts of the desperate, or maybe he realizes he is still behind the curve. Whatever the case, he is right about our being a good and giving nation. But we ought not to expect too much for our money -- except for the alleviation of misery. That, though, is not our gift. It is an obligation.


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