Saturday, November 16, 2013

Children in Need - An Heretical Thought Experiment

Children in Need (a charity event run by the BBC here in the UK) was doing its thing yesterday. It was on the radio while I was driving my van around London and on the tele when I eventually collapsed onto my sofa at midnight. By the end they seemed pleased with the £31 million they'd raised on the night !

I wondered what would happen if one year they just burned the lot.

What would that mean if Terry (Sir Terry Wogan - the main presenter) just piled up all the cash, joker style, and set fire to it? In my imagination, he's dousing it in petrol saying, 'It's all so pointless. I've been doing this 35 years, and every year we need more money but the suffering never ends.'

There'd be unprecedented moral outrage. It wouldn't matter that banks destroy and create that amount of money every day, every hour, indeed with high speed automated trading, probably every second. People would go fucking nuts.

There'd be calls upon the Bank of England to honour the value of the burned notes and Terry would be stripped of his knighthood and sectioned. Imagine then, if the Bank of England said there was no way they could legally honour the notes. That the money for the kids was gone.

All the good deeds that could be done, gone in a puff of smoke.

I think we'd paper over the cracks. There'd be another telethon or maybe some rich philanthropists in need of an image boost would step in to replace the money that Terry burned. The few million quid that Terry has stashed away would be sequestrated. He'd die in shame and we'd have a scapegoat so that we didn't have to think too hard about the difficult questions his burning asked of us. About what this money stuff is, and what the hell does having it, or not having it mean? Is it really real? Or is it just numbers and paper?

Then, 23 years after his death we'd reflect on his actions. His words would haunt us. 'It's all so pointless. I've been doing this 35 years, and every year we need more money but the suffering never ends.' A few subversive souls would wonder if he could be right. Is the very act of charity is helping to create the conditions that give rise to the need for charity?

Could it be that Charity... is a way of maintaining hierarchy, not undermining it? Does charity actually sustain those structures and ideologies which work against freedom and equality. Is charity a consequence of poverty, or is poverty a consequence of charity? Is it just a sugar hit when what we really need is a proper meal?

Who knows.

The powerful thing about charity is the immediacy of its argument. It's Bob Geldof's 'there are people dying now, so gimmi the money' thing. It makes going to the pub seem self-indulgent and silly, let alone burning money. If a child dies for the want of a mosquito net, then anytime you waste money or spend frivolously you must be acting immorally, right?

Charity can tie you up in a guilty knot. But then you find out that the boss of Save the Children takes home a salary of £163K, has £12K put into his pension, and claims £3K in expenses - and perversely - that guilty knot starts to unravel.

I don't claim to know the answers I just get this feeling that, for me, resisting the immediacy of charity is important. It's about creating the space for those answers to appear. So, generally speaking, I don't donate to charity. And I didn't give last night. If you think that makes me a bad person, or not as good a person as you, then fine. That's not how I feel.

Just bear in mind that the BBC licence fee is £3.6 billion, gathered on pain of imprisonment (107 people actually did go to prison for non-payment between Jan 11 until March 13). To put the money in perspective Children in Need raised 0.86% of the licence fee last night. Or about the same as the BBC spends on libraries, learning support and community events, or around a 1/3rd of what it spends actually collecting the licence fee itself (that costs £111 million).

If you donated last night or did something silly to raise money then I hope the money you gave brings the good you want to the world. Dance, sing and bathe in baked beans to your heart's content, but do remember that supporting (or indeed, not supporting) charity doesn't mean you're good.





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