Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Answering the Critic(s)

As a writer, I don't think you ever really feel like you've "made it" until you have a strong critic. Well, I now have one! Yeah me!

Motivated by the Herald Bulletin newspaper article, there is one individual (who I shall call "The Anonymous One") who has decided that I should be the temporary target of his ire. I am pleased to serve in this capacity for him because, quite frankly, it seems like he needs something like this in his life to feel complete.

He brings up a number of excellent points, which I would like to take some time to address.

1. A Religious Sacrifice

"... to describe [this project] as a Lenten sacrifice is a despicable sacrilege. Any TRULY religious philanthropist would give anonymously to a worthy cause, rather than make a public display like a foolish braggart, hoping to make money on a future book." - The Anonymous One

I agree with this completely and, had I ever described this as a primarily religious effort, I would certainly feel the same way.

But I didn't.

In fact, here is the precise quote from the Herald Bulletin article, taken from the interview with me about the project. After explaining that I came up with the idea and the title, 40 Days of Giving, I said about my choice of timing:

"You begin thinking '40 days,' and immediately Lent pops in your head. So I decided to start on Ash Wednesday."

The choice of Lent is clearly, from this statement, not a strongly-held religious statement about my own desire to sacrifice for religious reasons, but a matter of symbolic convenience. It is not a "Lenten sacrifice" in a religious sense, nor do I particularly think of myself as a "religious philanthropist." In fact, I specifically describe myself, in the interview, as a skeptic.

The Anonymous One certainly cannot be faulted for believing that I was trying to position myself as a religious giver, though, because the article emphasizes that aspect of the story far more than I was comfortable with. The photo caption says that it's showing us "explain the Lent-based reason for handing out grocery gift cards." The first line of the article reads, "Andrew Zimmerman Jones is taking his Lenten sacrifice to his wallet."

Honestly, when I read that I fumed for about 5 seconds. I wasn't "taking my Lenten sacrifice" anywhere ... if I hadn't come up with the idea for this project, I wouldn't have been sacrificing anything for Lent. It really is a bit of a misrepresentation of how I want the project to be perceived, and there it was in the very first line of the article! (From a writing standpoint, though, it is a good hook for the story, so I don't particularly blame the writer for framing it that way.)

2. Giving to Bad People

"The people who accepted your offer did NOTHING that you knew of to be rewarded for, in fact, they may well have been (for all you knew) thieves, crack addicts & prostitutes who were more worthy of PENALTY (the OPPOSITE of REWARD!)…

…or are YOU declaring yourself a DEITY who is capable & worthy of passing judgment upon those who you bestowed your Holy Gift Cards?" - The Anonymous One

Giving to worthy people is an issue that's come up (in more civil forms) a number of times between Amber and me. Part of my initial conception of this project was that it would be giving without really worrying about where it's going. In other words, if I chose to give in a certain way, I'd give to whoever showed up, without any form of judgement on my part. If this means I'm buying gas for someone in a Hummer, well, them's the breaks.

(The one time I faltered on this goal was at the first grocery store give, where I was about to walk up to a woman with three children to offer to buy her groceries. I glanced in the cart and noticed that it was full of pretty much nothing but junk food and soda. I didn't offer to buy her groceries. We all have our limits, I suppose.)

I actually made a poor taste joke about this to a guy at church this weekend (which, I suppose, I'll pass on in poor taste here). Let's say that I go out and do something nice for people, and one of the people I help is a serial killer. Should I not do the project at all because there's a possibility I might do something nice for a serial killer? What if I do something nice for him when he's on the way to kill someone and my act of charity makes him decide not to kill someone that day? "You know, rather than killing someone, I'm going to sit here and enjoy this nice ice cream cone that guy bought me," or something like that.

Yes, it's an extreme case. But what's the alternative? Don't help anyone? Because any help you ever provide to anyone could be used in ways that you don't particularly like. It could, ultimately, benefit someone who is "bad."

And that brings us to a second problem that I have with this criticism - I don't believe in "bad people." I used to believe that peoples' nature was somehow innate, and that there were roads that you went down that set you for life. I don't really believe that anymore. The longer I live, the more evidence I see that people can - sometimes with great effort or only under extreme circumstances - choose to change a lifetime of bad behavior, with the proper motivation.

Certainly, there are people (such as our hypothetical serial killer) who do absolutely horrible things, and these people need to be arrested or stopped ... but I don't believe that there's anything inherent in their nature that's bad. They do bad things, and they may even be driven by strong impulses to continue to do bad things, but are not necessarily themselves bad, and in different circumstances I believe that same person could probably be convinced to make good choices.

Consider the example of Jabbar Gibson, a man with multiple felony arrests. He is currently awaiting trial on a number of charges, including a 2006 arrest for possession of cocaine, heroin, and a revolver. This is one of the quintessential examples of a "bad person" that I might accidentally help during this project, to be sure.

Yet why does anyone care about Jabbar Gibson, in comparison to the many other drug-related felons in the country? It's because on September 1, 2005, twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson (already a felon) commandeered a bus in his hometown of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina headed toward the city, loaded up 70 passengers from his impoverished neighborhood, and drove 7 hours to Houston. They arrived well before any government-sanctioned evacuation efforts reached Houston. They had to stop the bus for gas three times, and did so by passing a hat around to get gas money.

Jabbar Gibson made (and continues to make, by the look of things) a lot of bad choices about how to live his life. From all accounts it's probably better for a lot of people that he's in jail right now. However, when Katrina hit, he made the right choice, a choice which helped others. Does this make him a "good person?" Not necessarily, but it certainly makes it harder to make the case that he's a "bad person."

So I don't agree that there are bad people out there. And if I help someone who is making a lot of bad choices ... well, I figure those are the people who need the most help.

3. Socialism!

"Your “gifting” could easily be perceived as a thinly-veiled “experimental” microcosm of a welfare state & of your enthusiasm to participate in such a socialist debacle" - The Anonymous One

I won't go into much more depth than this, but did want to make it clear. Socialism implies that the government controls the majority of wealth and the systems by which the wealth is distributed among the citizens. The acts of giving are random, non-systemic, and non-governmental - therefore, the project is not an experiment in socialism. I'm not a socialist, nor do I support socialist causes. I am, in fact, not a member of any political party or broad-based political ideology. I support individual ideas and policies on their own merits.


  1. GREAT stuff... I enjoyed your story in the paper very much. The world could use more like you. I am director of our Church food pantry, and was wondering if you ever thought about volunteering some time to help pass out food? I will put a link to our church website here. on the last page is a link to my e-mail. If you are interasted, let me know. Jeff... http://web.me.com/jefflemond/Site/Front_Page.html

  2. Ha!!! "The Annonymous One" actually made you THINK!! I'm sure that actually helped YOU more than your $20 gift cards helped ANYONE. I've noticed that some charitable people have asked you to PHYSICALLY show up & help out with charities (no money required), that kind of contribution would make you look a little less like a horse's ass than your little "everyone deserves $20" gags...plus you look like you could use some actual physical exercise, but, "I think you know where I'm going with this"!

  3. I think you did a good thing, regardless of what others think. Keep up the good work!

  4. I have to agree with the anonymous one. If you were motivated by charity and not attention you would have made anonymous contributions

  5. Thank you, other Anonymous dude, for being polite about your criticism! You make a perfectly valid point, but I don't agree that the two are mutually exclusive. I am motivated by charity, but I am writing a book and also trying to motivate people to donate $10,000 to Heifer International ... both of which benefit greatly from publicity.

    Think of this as the business entity of Andrew Zimmerman Jones, author, who is doing the giving. When a company, such as Eli Lilly, gives out donations, scholarships, or what have you, they typically do so with some degree of publicity. Why shouldn't I? Especially when I'm in a position to, perhaps, motivate some other people to give a little bit.

    Even with the far-short-of-goal amount raised for Heifer International at the moment, it's far more than would have been raised, and could impact at least one impoverished family profoundly.

    Still, I do certainly understand your skepticism. I thought long and hard during the planning phase about how "public" to do the giving. Part of me thought it would be smart to tell no one, but I realized that I needed to blog about the experience. My main motivation for not telling anyone was to not look foolish when nothing happened. In other words, I was leaving an exit strategy open by not doing it publicly.

    I started the blog specifically so that I couldn't back out. By announcing it publicly, I was forcing myself to actually carry through with the project, and fear of not having enough money wouldn't make me stop.

    All the best,

  6. I'm not sure how YOU cutting your hair - to give to make wigs for cancer victims IF you raise $10,000 - can possibly motivate ANYONE to donate anything to charity. I mean, if Fabio goes on the Tonight Show & promises to cut his hair off for Locks Of Love, he'd raise a bunch of money; but do you have his (deserved or not, not going there!) fame? It's like saying, "I'll jump off Pike's Peak if the sun comes up in the west." - it ain't gonna happen, & you're never gonna cut your hair. Sick children are NOT motivation enough for you??

    The small amount raised for Heifer International & the $20 increments thrown away at the grocery COULD do a LOT of good, if this "book project" weren't motivated by ego. Did you know that $20 will feed TEN CHILDREN FOR A MONTH in Haiti? Here's the link, if anyone reading this doesn't happen to be motivated by a no-name physics geek vowing to cut his hair...if the sun ever rises in the west!