A really nice thing happened in my local town. A random act of kindness. Some homeless people who were sleeping rough were put up for a few nights in a four-star hotel, meals included. The bill was footed by a local celebrity who, concerned about the rise in homelessness, wanted to draw attention to the problem. Members of his family scoured the streets on his behalf looking for homeless people to take to the hotel.
Social media, the regional press and even the broadcast media were all over the story which provoked a surge of commentary lauding the deed: the celebrity had done such a great thing, so kind and thoughtful, family and friends were proud to know him, it’s typical of his generosity. In a television interview, a news reporter on location talked to one of the lucky recipients. Grinning like Jack Nicholson’s Joker (the reporter that is), he asked the homeless man who could barely speak English if he was so, so happy about spending a few nights in a hotel and whether he thought this was a great kindness. The man, who appeared quite muted and a little out of it, repeated the words that were put into his mouth.
In the face of this juggernaut of public praise, it’s hard, perilous even, to have a contrary view of what went down. What the hell is wrong with anybody who’d bemoan a few poor individuals getting to stay in a nice hotel for a night or two? Even worse, why would anybody be negative about the kindness of a big-hearted celebrity? Such a person is nothing more than a begrudger.
At the risk of backlash, I’m going to go ahead and give a contrary view. First of all, sure, at least the benefactor in this case gave a second thought to the homeless and felt enough empathy to do what he did. That’s to be saluted. Plenty of us wouldn’t bother. Second, our benefactor isn’t alone. He’s joined a long line of do-gooding celebrities and philanthropists from Bono to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett to Chuck Feeney, Michael Jackson to Elton John, Rockefeller to Rowntree. So, what’s the problem? What do all these people have in common? Apart from being famous. Well, they’re wealthy. Very, very, very wealthy. We’re talking truckloads. Our hotel-for-the-homeless benefactor earns over £20,000 a week (yes, a week). But that’s small change; Bill Gates makes more in a minute.
The issue, you see, isn’t really about the giving-heart of any one individual. The issue is about the inequality of income and wealth distribution, a deliberately-constructed state of affairs by the way and not the outcome of natural selection and survival of the fittest. In our world, 10% of the population owns 80% of the wealth and the highest earners can earn over a hundred times more than the lowest earners. That’s twisted. Even more twisted is the kind of work that gets the biggest reward. You might think that caring for children or saving lives or looking after our natural resources would be at the top of the list. But in our upside-down world, work like that finds itself at the bottom of the income and wealth leagues. Instead, the top earners are the people who entertain us, the people who can make money without producing a single thing of value to society, the people who can squeeze every possible penny out of workers and resources and make sure it’s all squirreled away in offshore bank accounts.
Amassing vast wealth is seen as a virtue, as an indicator of a hard-working, talented and deserving person. For those of us who aren’t rich, it’s because we’re lazy or stupid or both. If we dare to complain, we’re just jealous and if we don’t gush over the unselfish actions of these uber-beings, we should be ashamed of ourselves. For sure, we’re in an upside-down world.
I’ve never been homeless, I’m blessed. But if I were sleeping rough every night, I’m not sure I’d know what to make of a short stay in a hotel followed by a return to the cold streets. The benefactor’s family in this story was proud and happy to bring the homeless recipients to the hotel for their stay. When it was over, I wonder did they drop them back to whatever street corner they call home. I wonder with the fuss died down, the good deed done, and the unfortunates on the streets again, is anybody thinking about how they’re going to get through the rest of the winter or is there public outcry and shame about the global epidemic that is homelessness. And when time passes and the details fade, what memories will endure? The homeless people and their plight or the celebrity who gave so much to the needy?
Call me a begrudger all you like but I’d rather have equality any day. Then every one of us would be free to choose our own random acts of kindness, not to mention have a roof over our heads.