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For the cure

May 13, 2010

At one time, people marched for their ideals. Where the streets are the main public forum, marching, more so than simply congregating, shuts down traffic and commerce over a wide area. It gives concrete human form to a moral agenda, especially a democratic one. Marches are, in a brutally simple way, a realization of democracy, the closest we come to seeing the people themselves, where political and moral authority are supposed to finally lie.

People no longer march. They walk or climb mountains or row across the Atlantic, all for charity, to raise money and awareness, of breast cancer or autism or childhood obesity. / CC BY 2.0

Here the whole point is not simply to be present but to perform some difficult, exhausting feat. By your suffering you earn funds and attention. It puts you somehow in sympathy with your bedridden aunt, or whomever. At the end of it all, you’re supposed to turn to the cameras and say, “that was hard, but it’s literally nothing compared to what obese children and their families go through every day.” You attract attention so that you can, at the final moment, deflect it; the real action, and the real heroes, are always elsewhere.

Whereas marches are inclusionary, walks are exclusionary, and sort of narcissistic. Your participation sets you apart, both from the victims you are helping and from the donors who have pegged their contributions to your efforts. If everyone walked, who would pledge money? Who would see your suffering and be moved to action?

On some level, the walkers and climbers and rowers are the main beneficiaries. Their self-serving actions get a larger meaning. They get an incentive to exercise or a reason to go on an adventure.

There is nothing wrong in principle with incentivizing altruism. But there are more issues than just right or wrong, namely: what kind of new psychology does this enterprise create?


Charitable awareness now supplies the primary model for patriotism. The troops are another cause, the cause. They are another group of victims suffering heroically. We honor them by performing the most self-regarding actions—shopping, watching professional sports, voting Republican—so long as we display appropriate colors. Nowadays displays of patriotism have less in common with fascist power-worship than with the self-sponsoring narcissism of modern charity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. chelsey permalink
    May 15, 2010 1:47 pm

    I suppose that *selfish wearing of charity badges & doing sponsered events in order to look good* = *more money for people in need* so…

    though it really annoys me when people pretend to be doing a selfless thing when really, like you say, they are actually doing it to get sympathy, attention or to raise their profile.

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