Empathy for Strangers

The other week I linked to a crazy Indiegogo campaign that was about crowdfunding a bailout for Greece. It didn’t hit its goal, of course — 1.6 billion euros is rather a lot to crowdfund — but it raised a surprising amount of money: over 2 million in a really short span of time. The person who started the campaign regrets not having thought of making it a flexible-funding effort, which would have meant that whatever funds were raised got used, even if the final goal was still miles away.

So now they’re trying again. This time the goal is more modest: 1 million euros, of which 20% has already been raised, and however much actually gets contributed will go toward helping out in Greece.

I find this fascinating because it’s a demonstration of empathy for strangers, and the ways in which individuals may be more compassionate than their governments. All through this ongoing financial trainwreck, we keep hearing about “austerity” and how people have to tighten their belts to get out of the hole. Debts have to be repaid, after all — you can’t weasel out of them, can’t ask for somebody to help you up when you’re down. But the effects of austerity are disastrous for the people who are least able to take the hit, while the wealthy cruise along with their belts untouched. And who says that forcing people to pay their debts is really the best and most moral answer? Why shouldn’t we help those who are down? Maybe someday, we’ll need someone else to do the same for us.

It’s the same principle behind Strike Debt, and (less explicitly) behind a lot of other charitable efforts. It’s people saying, I don’t care if you can’t repay me. What matters is getting you on your feet. We all do better when we help one another. It’s the Biblical/Torah doctrine of Jubilee: forgive the debts, let people wipe their slates clean, give those on the bottom a second chance. The way we run things these days, it sounds unthinkable — even immoral, letting people get out of their obligations. But when the alternative is to grind them down, and down, and down some more, until they’re buried so deep they’ll never have a chance of repaying you, much less achieving anything resembling success . . . then which one is really the moral choice? I choose Jubilee.

So I’m going to contribute to the Greek fund. I have no idea what world leaders are actually doing with Greece, but I know this much: fifty percent of young Greek men and women have no jobs. In September I’ll be visiting the island of Corfu as a tourist, oohing and aahing at the ancient ruins while being carefully steered away from the modern ones. I’ll feel a lot better if I know I’ve done something more direct to help. It’s a drop in the bucket, and I know that — but buckets get filled one drop at a time.

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