Questionable Charity

I remember being taught in graduate school to see sentimentalism as unethical: we read 18th century accounts of gentlemen traveling to see mad people, tramps, and unfortunate rustics (leech-gatherers, solitary herdsmen, the whole Wordsworthian crew) and then learned the anti-sentimental critique. Surely my professors were right to teach me of the innate hypocrisy and condescension in people who seek out sights (and sites) of misery on which to exercise their sympathy. Such people are not working for social change but only angling to make themselves feel better. (I once heard an activist recount his dismay at the student who said her work at a local soup kitchen had transformed her. “I just hope it’s still here when my children come to college, so they can have the same opportunity,” she gushed.) This questionable charity is even the subject of my husband’s brilliant and thoughtful book about how Americans, at the turn of the last century, dealt with the tangles of charity and complicity.

Knowing all this, then, why is it that each Sunday night finds me eagerly awaiting ABC’s Extreme Home: Makeover Edition? Have you seen it? It’s a reality show in which a picturesquely troubled family gets their ramshackle home completely renovated in a week. (ABC sends them on vacation.) The families have autistic children or are expecting triplets or have lost a parent (or both parents) to violent or tragic deaths or have adopted children with special needs. These are all very good people on the margins of the middle class and the cute carpentry team swoops in and gives them indoor plumbing and makes sure each child has a nauseating theme bedroom (if the boy wants to be an architect, he will end up with a protractor footboard for sure).

I’m unsettled by the ethics of this. I have come to think the anti-sentimental view too harsh—individual stories of how charity touches lives do matter. Habitat for Humanity and Heifer and Save the Children and other legitimate, worthy charities operate on just this principle. And there is something undeniably moving about seeing people’s worries lifted: “We’ve paid off your mortgage! And that’s not all, Sears [the whole show is an ad for Sears] has put thousands of dollars into your daughter’s college fund! But wait, moved by your work with AIDs orphans, Sir Elton John donated this new GRAND PIANO!!! Now you can play again!!” In the end, I guess this is merely reality t.v. and complicit with all the evils of the genre, only less so. (And I am not one to say that being less complicit makes something worse; I can’t stand all the cicada-eating in Fear Factor and have never watched more than a few seconds.) It is not taxing to watch and lets me be an 18th century sentimental tourist without having to even visit an unpleasant spot.

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