The Tragedy of American Compassion

Some say a laissez-faire economy would create so much wealth that there would be no poverty. It would certainly help, but until there is a perfect world women will be needed to help the needy. A recent book that teaches we must return to the Victorian example is Marvin Olasky. In The Tragedy of American Compassion he writes that people have run out of ideas on how to help the poor. Nothing has worked. He says, "The answer is sitting on pages of old magazines and reports deep in the stacks of the Library of Congress. Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions." He says we must not look down our noses at the Victorians with "smug rejection or neglect of pre-twentieth century moral understandings." He says, "The good news is that the impasse can be resolved. Many lives can be saved if we recapture the vision that changed lives up to a century ago, when our concept of compassion was not so corrupt. In one sense, we have thought ourselves into this social disaster -- and we can think ourselves out of it. The key to the future, as always, is understanding the past. This book, by laying out the history, attempts to suggest a new form for the debate over poverty and a new way out of the impasse." I'm doing the same thing in this book. The Andelins are teaching Victorian virtues.

Charles Murray wrote in his preface to Olasky's book, "Why was the underclass so much smaller then, at a time when poverty was so much closer to real destitution than 'poverty' as we know it today? Within the welter of candidate explanations is Marvin Olasky's central truth: Human needs were answered by other human beings, not by bureaucracies, and the response to those needs was not compartmentalized. People didn't used to be so foolish as to think that providing food would cure anything except hunger, nor so shallow as to think that physical hunger was more important than the other hungers, nor so blind as to ignore the interaction between the way that one helps and the effects of that help on the human spirit and human behavior. The Tragedy of American Compassion is the recounting of an American history that today's Americans never learned."

Olasky writes, "When the New Deal came alone, it seemed that perfection was within our grasp if we simply used government to do more efficiently what private institutions had been doing all along. We were wrong in that belief, but we are equally wrong in thinking that because government cannot do the job, nobody can. What is required is no more complicated, and no less revolutionary, than recognizing first, that the energy and effective compassion that went into solving the problems of the needy in 1900, deployed in the context of today's national wealth, can work wonders; and secondly, that such energy and such compassion cannot be mobilized in a modern welfare state. The modern welfare state must be dismantled." What a great challenge we have before us to do that. Let's begin by having our sisters start volunteering their time to give compassion intimately and for our brothers to dismantle government welfare and abolish socialism forever.

In Marvin Olasky's Renewing American Compassion, Newt Gingrich writes in the Foreward: "Marvin Olasky unlocked for me the key of how to replace the welfare state. His earlier Tragedy of American Compassion was one of the most extraordinary books written in our generation. In it, he went back and looked at 350 years in which Americans dealt with poverty, tragedy, and addiction with much greater success than the current welfare state has done." Gingrich says Olasky "even discusses the provocative notion of completely doing away with the federal safety net."

Olasky writes, "a headline in the June 4, 1995, New York Times: 'Gingrich's Vision of Welfare Ignores Reality, Charities Say.' The story mirrored what became in 1995 the conventional way of dealing with the unconventional goal of replacing the welfare system over the next generation with one based in private, church and community involvement. Impossible ... inconceivable ... preposterous ... ignores reality. With words of that sort, ideas that could renew a nearly dead system of compassion were shunted away." Gingrich and anyone who proposes to even reduce the size of government entitlement programs is accused of being mean.

'When the Pilgrims came to the New World in 1620, they saw before them 'a hideous and desolate wilderness,' in the words of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony. The colonial era of American history was a time of journeying into the wilderness and turning that wilderness into neighborhood. Good neighbors not only worked hard and cared for their families but also exercised compassion. Individuals and churches cared for widows, orphans, and others who had suffered destitution by disaster or were unable to help themselves."

"The early understanding of compassion is different from what has prevailed in recent American history, however. Most settlers read their King James Bibles, where the word 'compassion' appears forty-two times, usually as the translation of words coming from the Hebrew root rachum (womb) or the Greek root splanchnon (bowels of yearning). The linguistic connection underscores the close personal relationship that the person who offers compassion has with the recipient. Our predecessors knew that suffering with means not just sympathy but sympathy that is active and often painful, like giving birth."

"American churchgoers through the mid-nineteenth century also were taught that Biblical compassion was more the culmination of a process than an isolated noun. Repeatedly, in Judges and other books, the Bible says that only when the Israelites had repented their sins did God, as a rule, show compassion .... Our predecessors did not worship a sugar daddy god."

"This understanding of compassion as covenantal -- requiring action by both parties -- was critical in keeping the principle of suffering with from becoming esteem for suffering. The goal of all suffering was personal change. Those who refused to change did not deserve to be the beneficiaries of others' suffering. They might have to be left to themselves until their own suffering became so great that they gave up their false pride."

"The colonial understanding that compassion should be challenging, personal, and spiritual provides insight into what early American philanthropies such as the Scots' Charitable Society (established in 1684) meant when they 'opened the bowells of our compassion' to widows but ruled that 'no prophane or diselut person, or openly scandalous shall have any part or portione herein.' Sermons for several hundred years equated compassion with personal involvement that demanded firm standards of conduct among recipients of aid." Olasky goes into detail of how charitable organizations didn't just give handouts but required some effort on the part of the needy. I'll give a few examples out of the many he gives. The minister Charles Chauncey told members of the Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor to restrain "the Distribution of their Charity; not being allowed to dispense it promiscuously...distinquishing properly between those needy People who are able, and those who are unable, to employ themselves in Labour."

Some people, of course, became poor through circumstances beyond their control. They received personal care, often in neighbors' homes. The emphasis on suffering with meant that orphans during colonial times normally were adopted into families." He goes into great detail mentioning many organizations and how they were sensitive to each person. Tocqueville observed this and said that "Americans 'display general compassion' through personal interaction, unlike the European pattern by which the 'state almost exclusively undertakes to supply bread to the hungry, assistance and shelter to the sick, work to the idle, and to act as the sole reliever of all kinds of misery.' This difference, Tocqueville surmised, was due in part to the presence of small communities and strong religious ideas."

"Americans understood that large-scale aid programs could not be discerning in that way and therefore intrinsically lacked compassion. An 1844 McGuffey's Reader ridiculed a 'Mr. Fantom' who had 'noble zeal for the millions' but 'little compassion for the units.'...Personal involvement became the hallmark of nineteenth-century compassion."

Olasky shows how the turning point came in the 1920s. One example he gives is a quote from a speech by a man pioneering government welfare who believed volunteers were not as good as what would be called professionals. He said that while volunteers had endeavored"to ameliorate evil social conditions, to lighten the burdens of poverty, to reduce the volume of ignorance, combat the ravages of disease and otherwise labor diligently to assuage the flood of human sorrow and wretchedness," social workers and their allies would be"social engineers" capable of creating"a divine order on earth as it is in heaven .... Simply making the earth a place that will be humanely endurable." Government: 1 Church: 0.

. One person taught that men's spirits die if they don't have property: "No one, when men have all things in common, will no longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal action; for liberality consists in the use which is made of property." He says "legislation" sounds good but it does harm: "Such legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially" when they are told all the evils that "arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause -- the wickedness of human nature. Indeed, we see that there is much more quarreling among those who have all things in common, though there are not many of them when compared with the vast numbers who have private property."

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