In the Red

Waiting for the Other Glove to Drop

When you don't have anything nice to say, start a blog.

This evening I had the distinguished honour of serving as one-night roadie for those masters of the unsung song, We Fled Cairo. While certainly lacking tattoos, an ample gut, handlebar moustache, and weathered trucker hat, I think I pulled off a pretty good roadie vibe. I mean, I did go home alone...

Destination was Avant Garde, an establishment of extremely dubious decor, down on the edge of Rideau. The band had been asked to play at a benefit run by the Ottawa U chapter of Oxfam. It soon became clear that whoever organized this event didn't listen to a lot of music. The opening acoustic acts were like handprinted musical wallpaper: pleasant, inoffensive, not too loud to talk over. If that was the feel they were going for, then they hadn't screened their performers very well.

When Dave strapped on his guitar and hopped up onto the bass drum, it was like the opening salvo of a fireworks display. Heads turned, people became agitated, conversations trailed off, drinks were placed on steady surfaces. In the distance, a saloon keeper closed the shutters and hid under his bar. They played hard, the heat from the floor lamps clearly making it just a little more grueling. There was a scattered exodus of disgusted patrons, not too many, but enough to suggest that those who stayed liked what they were hearing. As Richard said at one point, "it's nice to see that some people still like rock and roll." I'm pretty sure the irony of that statement, coming from a post-rock band, was wasted on the audience.

The place wasn't exactly at capacity. By all accounts the fundraiser seemed to be a bit of a bust. A solid third of the people there seemed to be either a performer, an organizer, or a plus one. It reminded me of when you start a lemonade stand as a child and your only customers are your parents and that weird freckled kid from down the street. I don't know much about fundraising. Indeed, as a regular reader may have had cause to discern, I don't know much about anything. But, I have run a few of these things in my day and the formula at heart is pretty consistent. Whether it's a lemonade stand or Hollywood production, the point is to make money. This is the fund part of the fundraiser.

After paying the bands, and perhaps also the professional sound engineer, I sincerely doubt that they had much to show for it. I suppose you could just say that this is a smaller scale echo of the recent scandals marring the charity business, where charities pay 90% of their earnings to professional fundraisers. Maybe that's enough. Maybe even that small fraction of money raised is still money raised, better than a kick in the head. It's only for AIDS after all, and in today's climate of fiercely competitive causes, you can hardly expect to bring in a windfall. I suppose the organizers can congratulate themselves on a good time had by all, for a worthy cause.

To be honest, as much as I love the band, watching this unfold was almost as entertaining. To see these students bustling about with earnest conviction gave me a nostalgic stirring for that righteous energy. Somebody had even painted a big banner. Playing house, or charity rather, is actually quite serious. In going through the motions of these kinds of things, they are preparing for when they start to do this for bigger money in the real world. Just like children pretending to make soup out of sand, they are acquiring the habits of public-spiritedness that will make them fine well-rounded citizens. Perhaps these are the fabled leaders of tomorrow, these organizers, the extra-curricularati.

Something along this line was my experience of formal charity. I still have a plaque somewhere, a "Citizenship Award," for getting kids to put pennies in jars. The plaque probably cost more than we raised. Certainly this pressure from on high encouraged us to accept beyond a doubt that we were already successful, just for getting out of bed. I remember feeling vaguely perturbed by the whole thing, by the blatant disregard for inefficiency, a logical famine. I ended up virulently rejecting the whole enterprise, the right choice for the wrong reasons.

Why do the organizers need to organize? Is it some kind of twisted moral repression that prevents them from just going out to a show and having a good time? Do they recoil at the wickedness of a Thursday night on the town? We can only enjoy ourselves if it has some kind of net benefit for those who cannot. It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of liberal capitalism, in a sense. It is said that selfish pursuits benefit the whole, so when they don't they must be sanctified. To the bar, you have our blessing! Yes, it is seemingly selfless to devote oneself to good works, to bend one's leisure time to helping others. But at what point does the suffering of others become a cover for craven selfishness? There's something a bit appalling, undignified even, about a benefit show. At what point are you just using someone's plight as a party theme? It's as if "good cause" easily lends itself to "good party."

Of course, let's not pretend for a moment that the criticism I presented holds any serious weight. To do so would be to make the mistake of a naive kid on the verge of the future, with holes in his shoes and a chip on his shoulder. Someone who understands charity at face value doesn't understand it. The essence of charity, at least the kind that we practice in modern society, is purely selfish. You need only look at the theological formulations of charity to see this. Charity is about giving people what they don't deserve. If you can't scrape together much, that's alright. Besides, the whole point of giving is to demonstrate your detachment from worldly things, to encourage a similar detachment in others. Obviously this detachment part hasn't exactly made it through the wash without bleeding some colours; I think the argument can be made though that the secularized charity of modernity still functions with the same presuppositions, no matter how glossed up.

To step back again, maybe in criticizing selfishness we just drive it underground into stranger forms. Perhaps we need to embrace indulgence for what it is, out in the open, and leave it at that. You can only look into a mirror for so long before you eventually want to look at someone else.