In my world, this seems to be the season of fundraisers. As I write this, both of Anchorage’s public radio stations are at the tail end of their spring membership/pledge drives. Next week the Alaska Center for the Environment will have its Annual Spring Auction (which this year happens to coincide with Earth Day) at the Anchorage Museum. And last Friday, the 49 Alaska Writing Center staged its first-ever fund-raising Raven Write-a-Thon at Snow City Café (and elsewhere). I’m sure there are plenty of other happenings, but these are what I know because I contribute to them in one way or another.
I’m thinking about this now, because I participated in the write-a-thon and, in the process, helped solicit pledges/contributions to the Writing Center. Seeking pledges or donations to worthy groups or causes is not normally something that I do. I’d rather contribute than solicit. But in this instance it seemed both the right and writerly thing to do. And, to be honest, seeking donations is a lot easier to do these days, thanks to emails and Facebook. Most of the people whom I contacted were friends and colleagues who tend to be of a moderate to liberal persuasion. But I also sent out a request to members of my extended family, or at least to many of those who have become connected to the Internet (which leaves out virtually all the relatives of my parent’s generation). Many of my relatives, I should perhaps mention, lean toward the right. Some tilt WAY to the right, especially on social issues.
You may sense where I’m going with this. A few of my more conservative cousins took me and my fundraising to task. One who works in “the culinary arts” expressed amazement at my “chutzpah asking us to finance your little writers club . . . I guess I just don’t expect a handout because I’m so ‘artistic.’ ” But that was nothing compared to the cook’s sister, who commented, “Bill, If you actually wrote anything good, as in anything anyone wanted to read, then you call might actually make some money and not have to panhandle to support your ‘craft.’ When restaurants serve bad food they go out of business. They don’t beg for someone to give them money so they can continue to teach others how to do the same. You want money??? EARN IT! Or is that too corporate for you? I know you live in a corporate thought free zone.”
Clearly, my cousins weren’t getting the point. I tried to explain that my fellow write-a-thoners and I weren’t raising money to support our own endeavors, but a non-profit center that serves Alaska’s writing community and the local community at large. It does good work that I support, so I contribute to its effort in various ways. And so on. To my cousins it probably came across as a lot of “yadda, yadda, yadda.” Adding fuel to the fire, I asked my cousins, “What is it about raising money for a worthy organization that you don’t understand?”
To which my cook of a cousin replied, “THAT’S what I was looking for. A full-on condescending, peevish, holier-than-thou, drama queen diatribe in drag! Good job!”
OK, I’ll admit I get a little self righteous and holier-than-thou from time to time. But drama queen? Yikes! The same cousin admitted he likes to rile me up. He was doing a pretty good job.
Getting nowhere, I decided to end the dialogue, if that’s what it was. Then a third cousin chimed in. Her initial email offered food for thought, rather than explicit attacks on me and my writing cohorts, so she got my attention. She explained that she and the other two simply felt that writing is an “art,” not a charity or cause that needs or deserves funding. She also pointed out that neither PBS nor NPR merits donations, partly because both produce programs that are “multi-million-dollar money makers.” Sesame Street for example. All those Sesame Street products make millions. So why does PBS have to “shill for public (taxpayer) money to keep on the air”?
“A writing center benefits who?” she asked. “The budding "writer"? I can’t see it. It seems like a waste of charitable dollars that could be used for efforts beyond ones ‘self’.... (‘donate to me, I want to learn to write’).”
And more: “Of course it’s a free country and people can give their money to whatever cause they like, but a writing center? No different than asking for donations in order to teach people to oil paint or pencil sketch.
“I do give to an animal rescue group and to Parkinson’s,” she notes, “they have really no means of operating other than thru charitable donations and the work they do produces tangible results. Writing, in my estimation falls under the category of the arts....and either 'you got it or you don’t'....all the money in the world isnt going to turn a poor writer into John Steinbeck or a doodler into Norman Rockwell.”
In the spirit of shared perspectives and civil discussions I applauded her more “even tempered, thoughtful comments and perspective.” I also briefly defended PBS and NPR but explained a defense of public radio and TV “wasn't my main point; as you note, there are plenty of charities or ‘causes’ to contribute to. I happen to like supporting public TV and radio, for a number of reasons. I also support some groups that would fall into the general category of ‘green’ (conservation-oriented) organizations. I actually don't generally contribute a lot to ‘the arts,’ but perhaps because I'm immersed in the ‘writing life,’ I do try to help support the ‘literary arts’ in any number of ways. And, as mentioned in my emails, I really like the good work the 49 Writing Center is doing . . . the center fills a community need; it's not about donating money to individuals who want to learn to write, but to an organization that serves and supports writers (budding and accomplished) and the larger community of Anchorage residents (and other Alaskans) who believe that literature and more generally stories do make a great difference in our lives. I could get into a big discussion about the power of story and its importance to us humans but I'll save that for another time (and only if you're interested).”
There was more, but that was the crux. To which my third cousin replied, in part, “As for your claim that literature and stories are ‘important’ to human lives...how so? I would agree that literature and stories DO offer a diversion for those who like to read.....but really Bill, does a story or a book (or me donating to a ‘writing center’) REALLY help people in a community? Unless you're writing ‘all-points-bulletins’ I would beg to differ as to how a story or an essay can help a community.
“Whether its public funds (tax payer dollars) or money donated by private individuals, directing money towards the ‘arts’ does ZERO for the down-trodden or needy of the world.
“Fundraising for a ‘writing center’ takes money that people might have given to a truly helpful cause.
“Funding a ‘writing center’ makes liberals feel virtuous I suppose, whereas there's more of a common sense approach by those of us on the right. We cant see throwing money (either private or public) on FRIVOLOUS undertakings.”
My contributions to “the green movement” (or environmental causes) left my cousin shaking her head in even greater frustration:
“Again, its your call as to where you put your money but don’t you think you ‘greenies’ have enough influence and control as it is (as far as the environment goes). Many communities are banning plastic bags (even though the reusable ones cause MORE problems) We soon will have to resort to the black market to get a traditional lightbulb (even though the curly bulbs are an environmental hazard....ever read what you have to do if one breaks in your home?) Call 911, they will send out a hazmat team....the mercury in them will eventually be ANOTHER huge environmental problem.....And of course the environmentally friendly toilets that use less water are actually using MORE water as we have to flush them three times....
“This is the sort of LOONEY TUNE crap that the environmental movement has brought us......
“They banned DDT and millions have died (because of the ban) Malaria is a HUGE problem and people are dying because DDT is no longer used to control mosquitoes.....they saved a few birds (and the link between DDT and birds has never been proven by the way) but people in third world countries are DYING from malaria (but the birds in question are alive and well)
“But as with MOST liberal notions and causes, it’s the THOUGHT that counts (not reality)
“Anyway, funding of such ‘lofty’ and ‘virtuous’ causes such as a writing (indoctrination) center or ‘environmental’ movements may make you FEEL good, but they do precious little to actually make the world a better place. (IN fact the environmental lunatics/greenies have killed more people than they have helped) But perhaps the human toll doesn’t matter to those who deem mythological ‘climate’ and environmental ‘problems’ more important than mankind. And while writing essays and sharpening ones prose may produce a well thought out book or column, its not in any way, shape or form helping the community. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, do a shift at a homeless shelter or an animal rescue organization, heck you might even organize a group to help fish old tires out of a river....these are the things that really do serve a purpose and help make a community better....but then they don’t have that lofty ring to them like ‘come out and support a writing center’....do they?”
To which I can only reply: I give up.
I should emphasize that my cousin makes some valid and worthy points. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or animal-rescue operation, or fishing old tires out of a river (something I’ve actually done, while participating in Anchorage’s annual creek cleanup) are indeed valuable contributions to the community and to the “needy of the world.” But I’m not saying either/or. Why not both?
In imagining responses to this last missive, I thought about stories and books that have informed, influenced, and in some instances transformed my life. One of my beliefs (and I’m hardly alone) is that storytelling is part of what defines as us humans, whether oral or written. The way we imagine the world and our place in it is inevitably tied to stories, both the ones we’ve read or heard and the ones we tell ourselves. So yes, writing and literature is incredibly important to the larger community of humans, not only the literati. More on this another time perhaps.
As for my cousin’s take on “environmental lunatics/greenies,” well her choice of words speaks for itself. It’s hard to believe that anyone would argue or believe that the environmental movement hasn’t helped to make the larger world a better place. As for her exaggerated claims about the harm caused by “greenies,” I would recommend that she and other greenie bashers watch the documentary “Bag It!” to learn about the great problems – both environmental and human – caused by our species’ reliance on plastic bags and other plastic products. And as for DDT, I recommend she (and other) deniers read an article that appeared in Scientific American in 2009, “Should DDT Be Used to Combat Malaria?” Beyond saving “a few birds” – and yes, a link has been demonstrated, contrary to my cousin’s claim – bans on DDT have removed an awful toxin from the environment and human bodies. As the Scientific American article notes, DDT’s effects on humans may include reduced fertility, genital birth defects, breast cancer, diabetes, and damage to developing brains, and its metabolite, DDE can block male hormones. There’s more, check it out if you like. I also could find nothing to support my cousin’s claim that the ban on DDT has caused millions of people to die. In fact the chemical is still used in some countries to combat malaria, though as the cited article points out, DDT is itself a danger to people in those places, especially young children.
As for the “environmental movement’s” dire impact on humans, I would simply ask my Christian conservative cousin to consider Christianity’s awful toll around the world across the centuries. Not to mention the harm done by corporate culture and industry.
Yes, my cousins and I live in different worlds – or different universes. And I am the oddball liberal, greenie writer who chooses to live in a world where writing, literature, and environmental activism matter. So it goes.