Friday, November 20, 2015

The Cult of Caring

Americans are a charitable people. I mean we like to think we are....and the facts bear that out. The World Giving Index puts us at the top in the entire world. Well Myanmar takes top spot, and I say good for them. If anything we are becoming even more caring. Recently we've seen that many of the richest billionaires in America have pledged to pass their estates to charity. That's pretty amazing. It's something we can be proud of (and makes me less inclined to want to kill the rich).

But this caring has a downside. Because our culture values caring, people become subconsciously obsessed with the appearance of caring. Sometimes the cult of caring is put to good use. Salvation Army focuses their donation collection efforts in busy public areas. No one in America (minus our sociopaths) can walk by those big red buckets without the feeling of, "If I don't give something I'll look like I don't care." We might even say to the bell ringer, "I'll have some change on the way out." There, now he knows we care. Of course, Salvation Army is a wonderful organization, very little of your donation goes to overhead, and they help a lot of people. Nothing wrong with that. Or last summer we saw the viral Ice Bucket Challenge videos. It was a brilliant fundraising campaign that answered the question, "how can we bank on people's need to show how much they care, or at least fear being labeled as uncaring?" And of course this was all fine, it raised a lot of money for a good cause. But putting things in perspective, the whole phenomenon raised about half a million dollars. That'll pay for 2 PhD-holding researchers to work for about a year. Yeah it helps, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn't terribly significant. But it was wildly successful in giving a venue for self-congratulatory displays of caring. (I did the challenge myself.)

Sometimes the cult of caring engages in actions that are not so beneficial, but are harmless. Last year about this time ( I think ) we saw the Pay It Forward campaign. Shoppers, particularly at coffee shops, were encouraged to pick up the tab for other patrons. The idea being that it doesn't cost you much, and it would really brighten the day of another person. But then things got weird. We saw the Pay It Forward chains, where each person got free coffee, yet paid for the person behind them. The concept was so impractical. How would you know how much the person behind you was spending? The only was to be sure their order was covered would be to pay more than the typical order. What happened to the change? (I never heard, but I suspect the baristas made a small fortune.) To simplify, let's suppose everyone got the same coffee. Then where's the charity? Only the first shopper gave away anything, and only the last one got a free coffee. Everyone in the middle was caught in some strange zero-sum strategy of ceremonial caring. Luckily the impracticality was obvious to most observers, and the trend quickly died.

Unfortunately, the cult of caring can be much more damaging than some public display of harmless irrationality. Because irrationality is dangerous when not contained to the safety of the cafe. And it leads to disaster when it enters the realm of public policy. The latest display of caring is being applied to the war-torn Syrian nation. Because Schengen-zone European countries have thrown open their borders to refugees, people now look at the US. The Europeans are making a grandiose show of caring. And they look at the US. "Oh", they say. "I guess you don't care as much." A knife into the heart of the cult of caring! Surely we must respond with a massive display of caring! Oh, most Americans are hesitant? What are they afraid of? DON'T THEY CARE AT ALL?!?!??! You'll notice that members of the cult of caring can't even fathom that a person might form an opinion based on anything but emotions, in this case the supposed emotion being fear or hatred. To them sober logic is just a tool used to justify one's emotional disposition.

In these next three sections, I'll provide three ways the cult of caring is disingenuous or harmful in their take on Syria.

Self interest
The primary motivator should always be self-interest. It's not selfish, it's logical. Putin, the emerging leader of the developed world, has said so much. He said "If the Americans would just act consistently in their self-interest, all our conflicts with them would self regulate." Russians can understand and predict us if we act in our self-interest, and they can act in a way that helps both sides achieve their goals, and avoids military confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers. But if America acts irrationally, if we try to help other nations in a way that doesn't benefit us (not to mention that American "help" using means the imposition of American-style capitalism and democracy) we cause confusion all around. Putin is the opposite of the cult of caring, he can't fathom how a national policy could be driven by emotion rather than logical reasoning.

Does it suit the American self interest to allow massive amounts of Muslim immigration? America can hardly employ it's low-skilled labor force as it is. Our laborers are already under tremendous pressure, for economic reasons and the heavy Latino immigration. Are we okay with a policy that helps in-need foreigners to the detriment of in-need Americans? Surely the end result will be more at the bottom dependent on government services. How much are we willing to pay to show we care? Will Americans tolerate a tax hike to pay for it? Furthermore, does it make sense to allow in a group of people who chronically do not assimilate in Europe? Do we really think we'll do better here? (We won't, forcing assimilation would be considered insensitive and probably racist). The number of European-born Muslims radicalizing and fighting for ISIS, or plotting terror attacks in Europe, is truly disturbing.  There are plenty of risks to this immigration proposal, what are the benefits? Is display of caring really a matter of national interest?

Refugees are nothing new. There are an estimated 60 million refugees worldwide. Yet suddenly everyone is obsessed with Syrian refugees. There are nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees, and they are long-term refugees, whereas an end to Syria conflicts is becoming likely. There are Palestinians who are 3rd generation in the refugee camps. There are Somali refugees, and Congo, and Iraqi, and Afghani. There are oppressed minorities in China, like Uighyrs and Tibetans. There have been other refugee crises in the past decade or so. The civil wars in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Chechnya generated massive numbers of refugees. There hasn't been a national rallying call for mass immigration of those peoples. Does the cult of caring prefer Syrians to all the other refugees? No they don't, mostly they don't even know what's going on. They only know they've been challenged to care.

Of course we should determine, with a sober mind, what is best for Syria, and what is best for Syrians. Will bringing Syrians to the US help them the most? No. Not by a long shot. Not by an order of magnitude, according to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies. They determined that, for the cost of bringing a refugee to the US for 5 years, we could support twelve (yes, twelve!) refugees in regional refugee camps. This fact alone should be more than enough to end the debate. I hear the argument, "but we need to give them the quality of life they can't get in a refugee camp." And that is a wonderful display of caring. But the point of refugee camps isn't that every person has easy access to Starbucks. It's to not starve, and not have to watch your family be raped and murdered. It's ludicrous to think bringing one Syrian to the US is preferable to protecting twelve in the region.

We also have to look at who the refugees are. Most of the women, children, and elderly are in refugee camps in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Those streaming into Europe, who can survive the long trek, and pay the smuggler fees (estimates are four to ten thousand dollars each) are mostly able-bodied men. That is, those scrambling to Germany and Sweden to gain welfare checks are those least in need of the aid. Meanwhile the Syrian army is chronically short on manpower, to the point it is having trouble capitalizing on the Russian (and now French) air support. The west is practically bribing military age men to leave Syria. That only benefits ISIS! It's insane. Has there ever been a time when men were encouraged not to defend their homelands? Who will fight oppression? Who will rebuild the country if every other citizen capable of fleeing has done so?

The culture of caring is selfish, They don't give one hoot about what is best for the Syrian nation. Their concern is the self-image of compassion. It should be constrained to the realm of the coffee shop and fundraising, not matters of international importance. I'm not entirely opposed to letting some Syrians in. I have no problem with them, and as I've noted before, they have beautiful women. But the debate has become about caring vs. fear. It's a false emotional narrative. Let's make the correct decisions using logic, in a way that benefits Americans and Syrians the most.

I should add a note, because after letting this sit for a while, I realize it comes off a bit cold. It seems that many people are very put-off by the response of conservatives. I don't watch Fox News (or any news) so I don't know what they're saying. But if there is any degree of the sentiment "fuck the Syrians, it's their war and they should deal with it", I reject that principle entirely. The Syrians are being caught up in something much larger than some civil war between Muslims. Not only are regional powers involved: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, plus a money from the gulf states, but drug into this war are now global powers Russia, France, and the US. This is truly a proxy war on an epic scale. The Syrian people are being churned up. It's not their war, it really is a world war. They need our help. We absolutely should help them. I don't think the best way is mass immigration to the US, maybe it is. My point of writing this was not to refute the Syrian need for assistance, but to refute the incessant appeals to emotion being committed by both sides of the argument, by people who mostly aren't interested in trying to understand the situation.

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