Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change

I've had occasion to do a lot of thinking about the subject of personal initiative lately. Since it's on my mind anyway, maybe that's why I feel I keep encountering more of it than usual in my news reading.

You might have heard about this story, from a few weeks ago...

An Illinois Girl Scout troop leader took some initiative to teach her 2nd-grade girls about the current US Presidential election. She contacted both campaigns to ask for some free materials, like buttons or signs, to give to the 7-year olds as learning aids.

John McCain's campaign responded immediately, sending her several campaign stickers and signs. But the Obama campaign..?
The troop leader said she called Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters and explained why she needed the curios. Walsh said she was directed to Obama's Web site—where she could buy all the buttons and posters she wanted. On the Web, a packet of 50 stickers that say "Obama '08" goes for $5; a yard sign is $8. "Got Hope?" bumper stickers are $3 each, or two for $5.

Walsh found the prices a bit exorbitant her small group. She said she asked Obama's campaign worker again if she could get a few items for free. She pointed out that McCain's camp had agreed to send a box and, well, her 12-member Scout troop runs on a very small budget.

Walsh said the woman at Obama's headquarters put her on hold. After a few minutes, she returned with the same answer. The woman told her that she sympathized, but the Obama campaign needs every penny it can get, Walsh said. "She said, 'We're up against the machine and we just can't hand anything out for free,' " Walsh said. "She was very nice . . . but I wasn't getting anything.

She did eventually get something, to be honest; when the media started to report on the cold shoulder the scout leader had initially received, the embarrassed Obama campaign showered her with more than she asked for, right down to a personal letter from The One, Himself. Apparently it was all a terrible mistake.

It's interesting to note what happened, or should I say, what didn't happen, at the Democratic election headquarters during that fateful phone call.

1) The person who took the call apparently didn't think ahead and ponder the potential public relations consequences of her uncharitable response. A campaign that had succeeded in raising over $55 million in the month of August alone can't afford to spare ten bucks worth of pins and posters, for girl scouts? The campaign worker didn't think, "Won't the average voter think we're stingy unless we help the girl scout troup?" Doesn't the staffer believe in long-term thinking, that actions may have consequences?

2) The person who took the call brings the problem to her supervisor. Now, maybe it was or maybe it wasn't the official policy of the staff to honor all requests like this one for small donations of free stuff. Let's say the supervisor was sincere and he truly believed that it wasn't part of their policy to help people like this girl scout troup leader; why doesn't that supervisor simply say to himself, "You know, the stuff that we're being asked for only costs about $10 or $20, why don't I just pay for this out of my own pocket. My bosses will never know about it, but it would make the candidate look good if his supporters behave charitably... maybe I should just help her myself." Yet that didn't happen.

3) The person who took the call is told by her supervisor not to give a single penny's worth of free stuff to the caller. Why doesn't she then say to herself, "You know, maybe I can just send the campaign trinkets myself... I'm not making very much working here, but if I take up a quick collection from my pals on these phone banks, we should easily come up with enough to make a difference for these kids... it might mean one less coffee today, or tomorrow, but it's for a good cause, plus it will make the campaign look good...I can gather that stuff on my next lunch hour." That initiative didn't materialize, either; it didn't occur to her to take matters into her own hands and try and make a difference.

Today I read of another display of personal initiative. Columnist Dinesh D'souza had established a fund to collect donations for Barack Obama's half-starving half-brother in Kenya. He's raised $1,000 in contributions, and is adding an extra grand of his own money to that amount:

Here are the facts about George Obama. He’s in his twenties. He lives in a slum in a hut. He wants to become a mechanic but doesn’t have the money. He reports that he gets by on a dollar a month. ... He said when people notice he has the same name as Barack Obama, he denies they are related because he is “ashamed.” The Democratic presidential candidate, who made $4 million last year, hasn’t lifted a finger to help his half-brother.
I specifically asked people to send gifts of $5, $10 and $25. The reason is that even a relatively modest sum by American standards is a considerable sum by Kenyan standards. George Obama has said that he is living on a dollar a month. This seems an impossible sum to survive on, so I checked the poverty line in Kenya. According to United Nations estimates, it’s around $100 a year. By this measure, our little fund has provided for George for 20 years. Alternatively, George can move out of his 6 foot-by-10-foot hut and into a more comfortable dwelling. He can also get the training he needs to become a mechanic.

The Kenya newspaper The Daily Nation is outraged at the existence of the George Obama Compassion Fund, and in an opinion piece published over the weekend, they lash out at D'souza for yet another "low" in the US Presidential election. The writer (who is an editor for the United Nations) points to Obama's first of two autobiographies for evidence that he is not self-centered, and that he has room in his heart for others... room enough for everyone:

[Senator Obama] understands that the condition of being poor is not a crime, as some Republicans would have us believe.

But it is a result of global and national forces, which he is seeking to change, not just for the sake of young men like George (whose only fault, he writes, was that he was “born on the wrong side of our father’s cloven world”), but for all the world’s underprivileged people, who remain silent and ashamed of who they are because the world tells them they will never be good enough.

...Obama dared to think of family as all those, regardless of race, tribe or nation, who are committed to a particular “moral course”.

He sees himself not just as someone who can uplift the lives of his immediate family or the people of the US, but as someone who puts the world on a path where not just his half-brother George will have a chance to improve his life and expect justice, but where everyone on this planet will have a reason to hope for a better world.

... He realised early on his career that gaining individual power for himself was futile because “without power for the group, a group larger even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled – the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns held sway; that no-one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association.”

So it doesn't occur to the man running as the Democratic party's Presidential Candidate that he could spare a hundred dollars and change his half-brother's life for the better, for a while? Must it be total change, for everyone, or else no change, for anyone? Why not spare some change, for some... for one?

Maybe Senator Obama believes in all-or-nothing absolutes, and wants to wait until he's in a position to help every single person before he begins helping any one person. Fortunately, not every American is paralyzed by such deferment of personal initiative. Thankfully for George Obama, and the uncountable millions of others like him around the world whose stories we rarely hear about, some Americans can imagine what it's like to live in a tragic and flawed world, and believe not just in good and bad, they also believe in better and worse... in progress.

These Americans have the hope that they can be agents of change, helping one life at a time, one chance at a time, instead of every life all at once, forevermore, with just one chance... Americans like this donor to the George Obama Compassion Fund:

"I wish I had a brother, or even a step-brother. George is not my relative and not my race or religion but I still want to contribute to his welfare."

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