Batkid, suffering strangers and distant philanthropy

Peter Singer has a great article in the Washington Post that begins with the public outpouring for Batkid, and why people are more likely to give to something like the Make-A-Wish foundation than they are to organizations that provide sleeping nets in regions with malaria, or treatment for diseases that are treatable in the United States but often deadly elsewhere, before turning to the United States’ complicity in global poverty:

People who get money as a gift are likely to be more willing to give it away than those who do not receive this unexpected bounty. Nevertheless, the “giving experiment” shows not only that many Americans would like to help the global poor but also that they are genuinely happy to do so. All they need is the knowledge to be able to do so effectively.

I’ll leave others to take on this last point – though I think that structural poverty and inequality are an outcome of reduced foreign spending by the U.S. government, I imagine most Americans would balk at being accused of desiring global poverty (and I think that making the link between the one and the other was one of the central points of this article.)

But, I was more interested in an earlier claim, that

The answer [to why we focus on Batkid rather than helping unknown multitudes] lies, at least in part, in those above-mentioned emotions, which, as psychological research shows, make the plight of a single identifiable individual much more salient to us than that of a large number of people we cannot identify.


[T]he unknown and unknowable children who will be infected with malaria without bed nets just don’t grab our emotions like the kid with leukemia we can watch on TV. That is a flaw in our emotional make-up, one that developed over millions of years when we could help only people we could see in front of us. It is not justification for ignoring the needs of distant strangers.

Rhetorically, I absolutely agree with him.  It’s easier to make a case about the utility of a donation when you focus on one story rather than generalities – and studies bear this out.  I’m not as convinced that we can axiomatically make the jump from particular > general to proximate > far.  In the nineteenth century, I’ve found that distant philanthropy was very attractive precisely because donors could imagine the best results of their donations.  (It also had a lot – and I think more – to do with the ways in which distant philanthropy was more suited to political framing.  It’s much easier to say that the Irish famine is really about the abuse of centralized power, and therefore a good paralell for the Wilmot Proviso, for example, when the donors – in this case, Southern slave owners – were removed from the particularities of the crisis by several thousand miles)  But I don’t see this as a fundamental “flaw in our emotional makeup” – a phrase which suggests that people (in Singer’s case, Americans) are unable to imagine, or even appropriate the suffering of distant strangers.  A long history of international and institutional philanthropy undermines his somewhat absolute claim.  In the case that I study, thousands of people with no connection to Ireland gave over one million dollars.  The same can be said of other nineteenth-century causes, and with the advent of the Red Cross in the late nineteenth century, donors weren’t even giving to a particular set of suffering strangers, but to the relief of distant victims broadly.

So if not from the research, and not from the history of philanthropy, from where does Singer’s conflation of distance and particularity come?  He uses two examples from NPR callers, one woman who refused to donate money to overseas causes, because she couldn’t be sure her money would help someone, and another whose experiences in Haiti prompted her to give because she had been able to see exactly how far very small (for most Americans) donations would go.  This seems less about distance to me than it does about the specific versus the general (this whole topic is also informed by how Americans value the lives of different people, a determination often inflected by race, gender and class), but I was also struck by the fact that I have never come across a famine donor anxious about how their money was being spent.  Some of the people who gave to Irish famine relief also gave to help the Irish Revolution of 1848, and many of those donors wrote frequently and at great length about their hopes that money would go to particular people or aims (guns vs. revolutionary literature, for example) – but in the case of famine fundraising, which began in 1845 and continued into 1852, I have not found a single instance of anxiety about fraud.  And while some appeals told stories of individual sufferers, most appeals for Irish aid describe misery in very general terms – emphasizing the extent of distress and widespread scarcity rather than the fact that a donation could save one Irish child.

Certainly, philanthropy has changed between the nineteenth century and today, but I’m struck by the fact that the kind of proximate, paternalist charity that Singer says is – and always has been – the philanthropic norm, was absolutely typical of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century charity, but was radically disrupted by market, print and transportation revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century.

Archival gem (on stereotypes)

I took a trip down to Charleston today to look at the records of the Charleston Hibernian Society – the body that collected donations for famine relief in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  All told, these men took in approximately $15,000, and letters to the English consulate in New Orleans suggest that still more donations were made directly to British representatives in America.  Sadly, the 1886 Charleston earthquake seems to have destroyed the minute books between February of 1847 and early 1857, so there was less than I’d hoped for.  Nevertheless, I’ve come away with a list of members of the Charleston Hibernian Society to crosslist (and hopefully map) against the list of donors I’ve already assembled.

I also came across this delightful budget from February of 1847 –

The Treasurer Reports having paid the following bills:

Hayden & Gregg for Lamps                           $         3.38

To Patriot for Advertising                                          17.50

G W Black for Building Drain                                    157.22

Stevens & Betts for Spittons & Spade                     4.62

Stephen Jones for Repairing fence in yard             3.37

And for 1 Doz Porter                                                  3.25

Aside from whatever was going on with that drain (G.W. Black was admitted to the Hibernian Society at the same meeting that bill was submitted, and seems to have been related to other members of the society, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was getting some kind of kick-back), I very much appreciate that a dozen porters could be bought for the same price as lamps or fence repairs, and that whoever bought those beers saw fit to charge them to the Society.  The treasurer’s books also featured several remittances for whiskey.

Google map engine and Charleson donors

Although the Google map engine API is meant for businesses, there’s a lite version for non-business map geeks.  I like this tool because it’s easy to embed a lot of data into the map.  Here’s a quick version of the Charleston famine donors map that I’d previously made just using Google maps and dropping “pins” in places where donors were located:

All of these donations were printed in Charleston newspapers, and when I first started mapping them I was struck that (1) many of the donors printed in Charleston papers didn’t seem to live in Charleston and (2) how many of them were slaveowners.
The new map is here.

Quick note: Henry Street, New York, 1847 – a particularly philanthropic street?

Building on the patterns I’ve been trying to track in famine donors, I also noticed today that of the thirteen individual donors from New York City, nearly a quarter lived within a few blocks on Henry Street.  I don’t know what it’s about, or if it’s just a random happenstance but I’ve got a whole other list of NYC donors and I look forward to finding out!

Henry Street via NYPL

On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

Hunger as politics

I’m just back from ACIS’s 2013 meeting, where, inevitably, famine and hunger strikes were often on the agenda.  I’m also in the process of designing a course on popular politics, which I’ve conceiving of as means of acting politically open to those traditionally excluded from formal politics. This semester, I’m also sitting in on a class on humanitarianism at NYU, which pushes me pretty far out of my 19th century comfort zone.  We’ve been talking a lot about whether enumerated rights give oppressed people resources to fight their oppression, or whether oppressive regimes will always find ways to loophole their way out of those enumerated rights (as an aside, I just finished We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which is rife with heartbreaking examples of the ways in which the international community convoluted itself to avoid acknowledging genocide in Rwanda).  So, both in light of the panels I heard this weekend, and in light of this class, this op ed in today’s New York Times is particularly apposite.  If we agree that freedom from want is (or should be) a universal right, what do we make of the freedom to willfully starve onesself?

Hunger strikes are political tools with long shadows – those used by people who have little or limited access to other forms of resistance.  Suffragettes in prison used, and died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Irish Republican political prisoners starved and died in the H-Blocks.  While the World Medical Association sees force-feeding in response to hunger strikes as a possible assault on bodily integrity, the United States’ policy on the treatment of prisoners stipulates that “It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.” and when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate.”

My own work is so much about the political utility of acting to prevent hunger, that I sometimes forget the political utility inherent in hunger – and public displays of hunger in particular.