Scrooge’s prize turkey
One of the arguments historically brought forward against the systematic provision of state welfare (and the tax regimes that came with it) was that it would render charity obsolete. In any case, even if the need still existed, people would be reluctant to give away in charity what little the taxman left behind. And since charity was a noble virtue, it really wouldn’t do to lose it to the zeal of less virtuous and less noble socialist reformers.
I can sort of see the point. It’s not immediately obvious to me why someone who is regularly relieved of thousands of euros in income and expenditure taxes should still feel the need to top up the sum. It’s straightforward enough to hand over a few rupees to a leper in India, simply because it’s that or a very dead leper. Not so a Maltese leper, whoever they might be. The State sees to their needs, and it does so out of my money.
I should add before I’m banished from the republic that that’s not how it works. The €3 million-plus that were collected by L-Istrina on Wednesday were not what people saved in tax in 2012.
Rather, they were what people were happy to give over and above their solidarity bills. Which makes life noble and virtuous and all that – but mostly fascinating, because it suggests that welfare and charity are two rather different species. It also raises questions about the rationale and aesthetics of charity.
Take the amount raised. It would be exceptionally nasty, nay misanthropic, to pour cold water on what is by any measure a very heroic effort indeed. Still, €3 million is frankly peanuts in the grander scheme of things.
That’s about three days of average expenditure on the national health service. The Pharmacy of your Choice scheme alone set the exchequer back by some €2 million apart from the normal cost of medicine and provision.
One wonders why we don’t just budget an extra one per cent on health and spend Boxing Day slouching to Only Fools and Horses reruns. That would save us from the dubious spectacle of watching politicians fooling around ‘Gangnam style’ and whatnot. More seriously, it would spare us the heartbreak (and it is) of watching sick children and distraught parents tell their stories.
It all reminds me of an episode of Room 101 in which Mark Steel sparred with host Paul Merton about Bono’s tireless – and tiresome – efforts to get television audiences on Red Nose Day (the Beeb’s L-Istrina) to raise a few thousand here and there to feed some village or other. Given Bono’s stacks of cash, Steel joked, he could just give the money himself and get it over with.
Funny, but misses the point. Of course Bono can afford one less unused home and spare some change. But where would that leave the millions of ordinary people who are happy to part with a tenner and do their bit for flood relief in Bangladesh?
I’m saying that it seems to me that L-Istrina and such events exist primarily not because there is a need for money. That money could readily be found elsewhere with very little effort. (A couple less useless consultancies or directors’ freebies would do the trick.) Rather, it’s the act of giving that matters.
That would explain why the doomsayers of old were wrong, why we still give to charity in spite of paying through the nose for a strong welfare state. Taxes are not so much given as taken. There’s a profound joylessness, to say the least, to the act of paying taxes.
Which brings me to the first special characteristic of charity: emotion. I’ve spoken to many people about L-Istrina and most said that what makes them give is empathy. They are moved to give and they also experience emotion when they do so.
Detractors might accuse production teams of manipulating viewers’ feelings but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The fact is that people like to experience emotion.
It would be strange to accuse Shakespeare or Wagner say of taking us for a ride. A rather stretched comparison perhaps but the argument holds, charity events are major purveyors of emotions.
Topping up the healthcare budget would also rob us of our annual appointment with what one might call a great national game of antidotes. There is something carnivalesque about the way L-Istrina sets out, intentionally and in a formulaic way, to play with possibilities.
The star of the show is of course the ‘qalb kbira tal-Maltin’ (lit. the ‘Maltese big heart’, as in generosity). It turns out we have a collective heart after all, one that is normally masked by superficial partisan divisions. The President told the press the other day that politicians “would do well to heed L-Istrina’s message” and that politicians have a big responsibility not to let the ‘spirit of unity disappear during the electoral campaign’.
Interesting that President Abela thinks that the nation exists in spite of politics – but then I suppose the sleight comes with the job.
Aside, I might add that no one does this better than President Abela. The act of nominating a person from the opposite side was seen by most as one of transcendence. As a creature of cross-party nomination, Abela seems to float about in his own stratosphere, aloof of the partisan politics that made him who he was in the first place and eventually put him where he is now.
There is something Franciscan about all this. Where there is division (‘firda’), let there be unity (‘għaqda’). Where there are politicians who take themselves too seriously and are prone to endless libel suits, let there be clowns. Where there is Christmas ‘materialism’, let there be L-Istrina altruism. And so on.
This is what I mean by the aesthetics of charity, something L-Istrina and such telethons do particularly well. They elevate charity and its emotions to a spectacle, much as the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma’s many works on the subject do. Somehow I don’t think that ‘Lady writing a cheque to Inland Revenue’ would work as well.