Sunday, December 04, 2011

Polar opposites for the holidays

Maybe it's that I saw the "Human Fund" episode of "Seinfeld" in my formative years, but I've never fully understood the idea of giving someone a charitable donation as a gift. I mean, of asking for that as a gift, sure, why not? But of providing one unsolicited?

Nicholas Kristof wants you to feel guilty, not for buying yourself crap you don't need, but for buying stuff for your grandmother that maybe she didn't want. Because the elderly of course are all wealthy, and at any rate deserve no gratuitous fun in their lives, you should really be "buying" your grandmother a donation to an anti-sex-trafficking charity.

If I had to guess, he chose this hook because it's less likely to bring up a defensive 'but what about the economy?' that it would have elicited had he directed this at, say, trips to Sephora, or the Apple store. Tell people to give up the material things in life that give them pleasure, and they're not going to be pleased. Also in his defense, there's a case to be made for keeping most gift-giving to cards and the like, and letting people choose what they want and buy it for themselves.

But still, I'm not convinced that "a donation has been made in your name" is the answer. It seems so much more problematic than just, you know, donating to a cause you believe in without the "gift" framework. What if it's a charity the recipient doesn't agree with, which could be true for so many things that wouldn't necessarily seem controversial? What if maybe you don't want a gift that makes it seem as though the giver thinks of you primarily as someone who suffers from a given ailment, or is a member of a particular marginalized group? What if it unintentionally (or intentionally) sends a message that you think the "recipient" is a rich brat who already has more than he could possibly use, and that you yourself are, unlike the recipient, a Good Person? While your gift may help the needy, it has also ruined your relationship with the recipient. I mean, perhaps curing malaria is more important than whether two first-world inhabitants play nice, but if the point of gifts is to cement relationships, why complicate things?

Is the idea that people give more if it's incorporated into not just "the holiday season" but also gift-giving specifically? If so, is my objection to this unfounded, because it's fundamentally an objection to the behavior of those who need to do good ostentatiously (and if possible while making others feel bad) in order to do good, and not coming from a sense that good isn't, ultimately, done? Because this behavior may lead to good things happening far away, but brings about unpleasantness closer by. You can get givers who really are so rich that no "thing" exists that they'd be happy to receive but that would have found too frivolous to get for themselves, who cluelessly assume that everyone else in their lives is in the same boat. A sort of "we must remember how lucky we are" that fails to take into account the sharply varied degrees of privilege that "we" contains.


On the other end of the spectrum, the now-quasi-notorious Vogue gift guide. The suggestions (aside from many seeming oddly more appropriate for a rap video circa 15 years ago than for a socialite in 2011, which is neither here nor there) are exactly the kind of things one might receive and think, how unfortunate that a sum worth how many weeks' worth of groceries is sitting in my apartment in the form of a clutch that looks like ornithological roadkill. And, as cited elsewhere, the Chanel towel (and, evidently, cotton pad) seem to serve no purpose other than to provide a convenient example for "stuff people who can't burn through their money quick enough would buy."

But it seems unlikely that someone would be angry to receive a Chanel towel. It could always be sold on ebay, the proceeds donated to the charity of your or Kristof's choice. The dead-bird purses, though, I think you'd be stuck with.


Sigivald said...

Huh. It never even occurred to me that one might do such a thing, except perhaps for the sort of enthusiast (or moral scold) who you know, personally would enthuse over such a gift.

(Semi-irrelevantly, as I've said online other places, "I give people presents to stop the giant wolf from devouring the sun. I don't know what your motivation is."

All the holidays, they blend together.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This is a phenomenon I'm aware of from the off-line world as well, so I don't think it's entirely made up. The idea is, "we" have more than "we" could possibly need, "we" want to keep our children from being bratty and entitled, so we are going to move beyond the materialistic Christmas Industry and use the holidays as a teaching opportunity, or as an opportunity to show off how self-righteous we are, either way.

It is, in other words, a rich-people thing, one that involves imagining that the entire world is made up of those "who have everything" and the desperately needy. They miss the existence of people - even what with income inequality being what it is - who fall somewhere in between. Including people in their own lives. Not that the rich should give gifts to the middle-class folks in their lives as a way of systematically redistributing wealth. Rather, the point is that they ought to recognize a category of recipients for whom a material gift is not going to be something they already own or would if they wanted it. A category of recipients to whom it can be fun (yes, even for those in the same middle wealth category as they are) to buy gifts that the recipient wouldn't buy for himself on account of, too frivolous.