Many scandals emerge from the rez. Today’s version is a huge government grant for educating the children which evidently was skimmed for personal gain. I know few of the people involved and have no opinion on the particulars, but I know the phenomenon well and it is not limited to reservations. I called it “compassion trafficking.” In its most primitive form it amounts to “send me five dollars or this puppy will die.” Find a sorry situation that wrings the heart, propose some kind of solution because you are so tender- hearted, informed and skillful, and then watch the money roll in. It works great: refugees, war victims, the starving, the abused, the debased innocent, the contaminated land, the stray pups. How can one NOT send money? Our love becomes intense, almost sexual, maybe a lifelong obsession.
Those particularly vulnerable to these appeals are likely to be folks who feel guilty over good fortune (movie stars, those in need of approval, zillionaires). Is there something wrong with that? I don’t think so. Surely atonement is good, esp. when it benefits many (Carnegie’s libraries, Ford Foundation’s educational support, Jobs’ malaria project) and when it points out to the rest of us how simple measures (books and mosquito nets) can have huge consequences. If much of the money that is sent comes from people who can scarcely spare it in their own lives, is that bad? I don’t think so. Do we or do we not believe in free will and self-determination? Should we deprive anyone of the pride that comes from giving?
Human sexual trafficking is locating the relatively powerless (children, women), capturing them physically, making a profit from them until they are too old or damaged to be valuable (soon enough), and then either snuffing or abandoning them. This is the basis of drug trafficking as well, using addiction as the means of capture and knowing that as the older users die, new users will arrive.
“Vote trafficking” in a democracy is not different. Promises are the mechanism of capture, the issue is promoted until it dies of failure to deliver (or more rarely due to success), and is then abandoned for the next issue. Advertising is also based on this premise, trafficking toothpaste and soft drinks through the mechanisms of popularity and exaggerated claims, then changing the brand to something “new” to keep the trafficking going. This could be criticized as trivializing the far more serious trafficking of sexual victims — or war — or empty monetary instruments of conveyance. But since it is a basic vulnerability of all human beings, the mechanism itself deserves to be addressed in all its forms, its seeming innocence as much as its obvious criminality.
Those who exploit this mechanism of compassion, of needing to help and improve the world, are normally defined by law as criminal or curbed by regulation. Their secret — and it is easy to learn — is always to stay one step ahead, legalizing and deregulating, whether marijuana or junk bonds. But it is also useful to forbid, criminalize, impose prohibition, because that creates an underground that drives up the profit far beyond the limits of what can be controlled by inspectors, permits, cops and judges. Also, the seeming virtue of the criminalizers is burnished. Complexity and overpopulation are also enablers of the criminal compassion traffickers.
The current overwhelmed governments of nations, to say nothing of their corruption from within, allows a whole new category of trafficking in “white horse riders” who wish to be funded for seemingly virtuous reasons. This means a constant three-level opportunity to say: “Send five dollars or I will kill this puppy,” “Killing puppies is evil and you must send me five dollars so I can punish those killers,” or “Send five dollars and I will write a perfect law and design a perfect system for managing puppies.” Meanwhile, the endless supply of puppies continues. (Substitute “boys” for puppies.) It is the social and biological forces that need to be addressed, but they are not popular.
No one thinks of compassion for traffickers and exploiters. No one pities people so desperate that they will deprive the vulnerable they pretend to be helping. In fact, another dimension of sexual trafficking in children is discrediting those who know and help victims. In the literary world this means that for every book sold because it reveals something like the suffering of children is followed by another book stigmatizing the first author, often on puritanical grounds exploiting liberal tendencies to stigmatize bad guys instead of figuring them out.
What are useful criteria for distinguishing between a scam and a true service? When I was in seminary, I worked for a counseling center managed by a certified and constantly scrutinized Clinical Pastoral Education minister and counselor. The lifeblood of the center was government money that came in for public support of broken families and desperate children. Also, there was money for the development of future ministers, some money from private counselees, and money from the church that sponsored the center. Once a month this man of good will cooked the books: that is, he shifted money around — not to benefit himself but to pick up the bill for the neediest. His life was ten hours of work every day. He did not live high. He had gotten through college by living in his car and qualifying for scholarships, which are a kind of trafficking in education that benefits institutions of higher learning since scholarship money often comes from donors. (“Send five dollars or I will deprive this student!”) He knew that if he were found out, he was vulnerable to punishment.
These criteria are helpful:
1. Tenacity: Is the issue addressed over a long period of time regardless of changing fashions that offer more money for other issues?
2. Participation: Do those working for this cause have actual contact with the beneficiaries? Have they actually been there, done that? Is their lifestyle roughly the same, even if they have the independent capacity to live in a much grander style?
3. Identification: Are they resisting the temptation to be “better,” the “big person” who is stooping to help the pitiful? Or are they one of them, equal.
4. Acceptance by the category: If, for instance, the “puppies” are sexworkers, do they accept this charitable helper as one of them, able to see their world as they see it and therefore possibly help find a way out of it that doesn’t make victim-puppies out of them?
5. Is the help empowering? Will the empowerment be removed when the puppies become dogs? Or will they suddenly be criminalized, impounded, accused?
6. Is it first level, on the ground, in the trenches, or is it Ivory Tower critiques and theorizing working from data-surfing and bibliography?
7. Transparency is a difficult issue. Protecting those stigmatized can mean sheltering their particulars as much as sheltering their bodies. Those who traffick in stigmatizing are constantly mining for info about infection, gender-identification, “failure”, insanity, arrests. Extortion is a kind of trafficking: “Send five dollars or I will reveal your past.” Therefore, part of the work of opposing trafficking is opposing stigma of all kinds and possibly also the reverse of stigma, which is superiority: elitism, privilege.
8. Systems and games are surely at the base of much woe. Overpopulation, outmoded systems of governance, rampant capitalism (commodification), dwindling resources, lack of consensus, overspecialization, distancing from reality, self-protection, and a constantly shifting state of the planet and the knowledge of it, mean that what worked yesterday won’t work today. (“Send five dollars and I’ll tell you the secret of the universe!”)
9. Fear. (“Send five dollars and I’ll tell you how to survive when the world is destroyed.”) Best voting and war-mongering scam yet.
10. Funding by accomplishment: Pups should avoid dependence on both charity and institutions. Take your life into your own hands, Pup.
11. Charity does not entitle control or ownership of the issue, not even by the government. How can a government “own” HIV-AIDS and suppress all differences of opinion or competition?
12. If the category doesn’t include those who are ugly, infected, vicious, stubborn, unhousebroken, or handicapped some way, it’s not compassion. In fact, specimens like this who turn up in “shelters” are euthanized. Mother Nature does the same thing, but doesn’t pretend it’s compassion.