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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Making Us a Better People

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A15

A group of my 10-year-old daughter's friends set up their cookie-and-hot-cider stand on Saturday outside a popular gym where a youth basketball league was playing one game after another. They did a booming business precisely because personal profit was not their motive. They were raising money for the victims of the tsunami.

I admired the kids and, at least as much, their parents for encouraging the rest of us to feel a sense of obligation toward people half a world away who had suffered inexplicable horror. If we cannot muster compassion for the victims of this kind of disaster, it's doubtful we'll ever feel it for anyone else.


(Themio, Left, And George Pallis Raise Funds In Mercer Island, W)

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Yet it has taken barely two weeks for cynicism about such acts of mercy to set in, especially where big-name celebrities are involved. Those who have made large public contributions to the relief effort are being subjected to the questioning of motives usually reserved for Enron executives: If these pampered, famous people are being generous, it must be because there is something in it for them.

Consider these words from an essay in Saturday's New York Times: "The victims are largely anonymous (except those linked to vacationing supermodels), but many benefactors are not, particularly those who are rich and famous (and especially those who are famous)." The essay referred to public donations by Sandra Bullock and Leonardo DiCaprio, a planned Willie Nelson benefit and an NBC "celebrity-driven" telethon. "Jay Leno," the article went on, "said he would auction off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle signed by celebrities."

Julie Salamon, the author of the essay, then cast the issue this way: "Is this charity-plus, a kind of righteous one-upmanship with public relations benefits? Or is it smart fundraising, recognition that in a society saturated with pop culture even tragedy sells better with a name brand attached?"

Fair questions perhaps. But consider the simpler possibility: that every once in a while, even celebrities do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Call me naive, but isn't it conceivable that these celebrities are motivated by exactly the same fellow feeling that moved those girls to sell cookies?

Salamon is a serious student of the philosopher Maimonides, and her essay, drawing on Maimonides' teachings about charity, makes a point few can disagree with: that "many people believe it is more worthy to give quietly, an idea rooted in notions of humbleness that now seem quaint."

Yes, an extra dollop of individual humility would be welcome these days. But this moment is about more than individual morality. It's about how we respond as a people to the troubles of others.

The distinction is drawn nicely by New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson in his book about the Letter of James. James, Johnson notes, was less concerned with "the perfection of individuals" than with "shaping a community of character." If each of us were perfect, we would give all we could, quietly. But we are not perfect. We need reinforcement from our friends and neighbors -- yes, even from celebrities -- that creates the community of character Johnson describes. We tend to be more generous when others remind us that we should be.

In the very last paragraph of her essay, Salamon makes the right point: that celebrities "can provide a moral example for us to follow when they do something good." That, it seems to me, is far more important than whether the celebrities get the additional advantage of good publicity out of the deal. The publicity only reinforces the community of character: If celebrities get praised for doing good, maybe they'll do more of it. Maybe the rest of us will, too.

There are many legitimate questions about our outpouring of charity toward the tsunami victims. We can be generous when a tragedy is televised, but are much less generous when it comes to the day-to-day suffering of the world's, or our nation's, poor. Still, big events sometimes shake us up, and the tsunami may serve as a reminder of our obligations to people in pain -- down the street and around the globe.

The day after our visit to her friends' cookie stand, my daughter Julia asked if we had contributed yet to relief for the tsunami victims. I said we hadn't. She said we should, and now we will. I'd like to hope we would have done so eventually, but the truth is that many of us need nudging in the right direction. The girls selling cookies, no less than the celebrities, were building a community of character. Bless them for it.

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