Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dude, Where's My Philanthropist?

As a companion piece to the I Pledge video, Ashton Kutcher has published "Creating a Nation of Philanthropists, One Pledge at a Time" over at The Huffington Post. I'm still not sure that Jason Bateman's pledge to flush only "after a deuce, never a single," qualifies as philanthropy, especially if you're the one who has to use the bathroom next, but curiosity got the better of me. Besides, few people in Hollywood with a career like Ashton Kutcher's are actually stupid. Wrong on the issues, maybe. Often misguided, definitely. But generally, not stupid. So I wondered how he would justify that video, which has received so much Internet mockery.

When I graduated from high school, I had three opportunities -- go to college, get a job, or join the service. Although I considered putting my eight years of Boy Scout experience and love for our nation to the test by joining the military, I did not want to put myself in a position where I might be commanded to take the life of another, and quickly ended my flirtation with military service.
I won't second-guess anyone's decision not to serve in the military. I never served, either. It was the right decision for me (and for the military) at the time. Ashton's was probably the right decision in his case, too. But if the deciding factor against joining the military was that Ashton might be commanded to take the life of another, I'm not sure how serious an option military service really was for him. And if it wasn't a serious possibility, why even bring it up?

Back in my younger days, the answer for myself (and for a lot of other young liberals) was that I thought saying this would make the other side take my views more seriously, and that my own side would grant me some well-deserved (I thought) props for ethics. ("I could have served, sure, but I chose not to, because I won't kill on command, even though they will.") And maybe this memory is what makes me uncomfortable with Ashton's wording. After all, it would be absurd to suggest that starring in Dude, Where's My Car? is ethically superior to serving in the U.S. Navy when it led the rescue and relief effort after the Indonesian tsunami. Or in the Special Forces when they helped drive the Taliban from power and gave 26 million Afghans a fighting chance at a real future for the first time in decades. That would be a Joel Stein column, and I want to give Ashton more credit than that.
Today, serving our country no longer simply means drop and give me 20, this is your rifle, defend this land we call home.
When, exactly, did it ever mean only that, Ashton?
National service is becoming a term used to define a much broader and equally passionate category of patriotism. This brand of patriotism is inclusive of a pure humanitarian effort guided by the simple virtue of the giving of oneself for the benefit of another in the name of the United States of America.
Unlike those seamen and naval officers delivering aid, relief, and rescue after the Indonesian tsunami, apparently. Or those in the National Guard whenever a disaster strikes within our own borders. Or those pilots who stopped a slaughter in the Balkans–twice. Did wearing a uniform mean those were "impure" humanitarian efforts for the benefit of another in the name of the United States of America?
Americans are on the brink of the Newer Deal where we will join hands in an effort to resurrect the pride in a government that supports us in supporting ourselves.
Actually, the best thing the government can do to support me in supporting myself is to lower my Self-Employment Tax. It can let me keep more of my own hard-earned money rather than taxing it away from me so that it can then "support" me in supporting myself. Where can I join hands to bring about that Newer Deal?
Our new leader understands the value of our collective voices, he believes in our ability to create a greater good, and knows that as a nation we are willing to sacrifice selfishness for a more robust happiness.
You know, I can remember someone writing a line like this, at some point, about every single president in my lifetime.
Four years ago I sat in a hotel room with Israel's Head of State, then former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, where he proceeded to tell me what he felt made America a great country. He said that throughout history America, more than any other nation, has supported itself and consistently extended itself to other countries in need without looking for anything in return. I bit my lip as I thought about our national pursuit of Middle Eastern oil and how much more we could be doing as a country for so many resource depleted nations. I kept my retort to this gracious offering to myself and accepted it as a political offering of good will.
I hope Ashton has more encounters like this. One of the things that changed my own view of America, and even my politics, was actually talking with people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain, whether in Eastern Europe or in the former Soviet Union.

At first, I went into those conversations much like Ashton did. I thought these Russians and Europeans had to be joking, or even slightly crazy. Didn't they realize that the Soviet Union and America had simply been two competing ideologies, two versions of empire, with the only real difference being that those of us in the West had a slightly longer leash? Couldn't they see all the flaws and failed promise, all the unfulfilled potential and broken ideals of my own country? How nearly every American action they thought had been helpful in ending Communism had actually been a terrible mistake? That because we were not perfect, that meant we were bad?

I eventually realized that the problem in perspective was actually my own, rather than theirs. I came around, and maybe Ashton will too. Someday.
Later I dissected his semantics, justifying the statement as truth based on the use of the word "history," as opposed to "recent history." I considered the support we have shown for so many countries in crisis throughout history, including outreach during the tsunami, and China's earthquake, and thought that most certainly from Israel's perspective we have been extraordinarily supportive.
I confess, I'm just not following him here. What Shimon Peres said was truthful because he used the word "history" and not "recent history," but then the examples of American generosity he mentions are the recent history of the Indonesian tsunami and the Chinese earthquake, which he includes as "history" rather than as "recent history"? Is Ashton trying to say that we were better in the past or that we're better now? That we're better compared to some other point in our history or that we're better (or worse) then the nations of centuries ago? That he considered what we did after the Indonesian tsunami and the Chinese Earthquake, but that he found our efforts lacking compared to, say, the Marshall Plan or what he thought they should have been?

Maybe it's me, but I'm really just not following him here...

And how did Ashton Kutcher wind up sitting in a hotel room with the Prime Minister of Israel anyway?
However, I couldn't help but feel we are falling short of this measure of greatness, both domestically and abroad. Following my meeting with Prime Minister Peres, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of desire -- desire to live in a country of philanthropists and to have the world recognize Americans as citizens dedicated to selfless goodwill.
You already live in that country, Ashton. America has the highest rate of charitable giving by its citizens of any developed nation in the world, and I'd wager that we'll top any list that includes the developing nations as well. That's why the UN and our European friends tend to focus only on government aid in these areas. Including what Americans give privately, on their own, without any need for direction by a political leader or bureaucrat, would mean the rest of the world might have rethink their stereotype of us. If you want to argue that we still should be doing more, then fair enough. But at least give us the credit for what we already do, rather than playing into the caricature of Americans as selfish "charity failures."

Of course, if your goal really is an America dedicated to "selfless goodwill," then getting global credit and accolades for our selfless acts should be beside the point. A person with selfless goodwill does what is right because it is right, not because he or she gets good press out of it. If some areas that have benefited from our generosity, like sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans and elsewhere, have a generally high opinion of us, that's a fine thing. But if a poll shows that Western Europeans find us stingy, I'm not about to lose any sleep over it. And majorities in some areas of the world will view us badly no matter what we do.
With that as my lofty goal, I observed the state of our greatness and became determined to make this goal a reality.
See the two paragraphs above.
Two years after this meeting, I stood in my agent's living room (who happens to be the brother of our nine and a half fingered future chief of staff) where I met a man who was contemplating throwing his hat in the ring for the hardest job in the world. I had met a few presidential candidates before in my life and heard many speak but I had never seen one with more audacity, not of hope, just audacity.
See? I told you Ashton wasn't stupid. Wrong on the issues, maybe. Often misguided, definitely. But not stupid.
Barack Obama stood in front of a room of Los Angeles liberals and told us that everyone could have the American dream... but we were going to have to work for it. He said that every kid will get assistance for college but they were going to have to work for it. He explained that our nation could become independent of foreign oil but that we were going to have to give up a bit of our current comfortable existence. Now, from the mouth of an average straight-shooting American that may not sound audacious at all, but for a politician seeking endorsements to tell people that they are going to have to make sacrifices for the greater good, that he is not going to wave his magic legislative wand and fix it, that's audacity. That audacity is what gave me hope.
Was this a fund-raiser, by any chance? Because this is exactly what I would say to a room of Los Angeles liberals if I wanted them to feel good about themselves, to feel good about me, and then to open their checkbooks.
Maybe following Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday we will be inspired to do more for our country, or to fear less, but today we have been asked to serve not just for a day but to make it part of our lifestyle.
I'll leave this comment to Powerline reader Dr. Susan Harms: "What do they think the rest of us 'commoners' out here are doing? We are doing all of that, silently, without the camera, and without telling anyone."
A wise friend once told me that every time you serve someone else you take on all of their good traits.
Wait for it...
Maybe this explains the outstanding character of Barack Obama.
Yes. Who knew the Chicago political machine was so selfless and noble?
He is a servant to this country and he has inspired me to adopt his spirit and to serve him with that dream of a great America in tow.
Change. Hope. Yadda yadda.
A year ago my wife and I looked one another in the eye and promised to dedicate ourselves to finding a cause to champion.
To me, this one is priceless. It's not that Ashton and Demi encountered a person, or a situation, and were so moved they felt that they had to do something. They decided that they wanted to champion a cause, then went looking for a cause to champion.

Anyone else reminded of that old joke, "I want to make a fashion statement, but I don't know what to say"?
After sifting through the wreckage of issues that our world faces --
Or at least through the "cause coverage" written up by their personal assistants.
-- we were continually confronted with one issue that pulled at our heartstrings and haunted our thoughts: the abolition of 21st century slavery.
Worthy cause. No argument from me here.
We've spent the last four months studying human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children and are shocked and offended by every story we hear. In our pursuit we have been confronted with finding a tangible, quantifiable solution to the crisis that has become the second most profitable illicit trade in the world, only bested by the drug trade. When faced with such a huge issue with very ambiguous tactical solutions, one can become paralyzed by the data and horrific stories. We found ourselves in such a place and realized that the only way to create effective change is to first state your intention. Thus the Presidential Pledge was born.
Slavery in America was ended by the Civil War. The international slave trade was ended by the British Navy. And the first step to ending slavery in this still-new century? Make a goofy video with Hollywood celebrities vowing to smile more. That's some seriously out-of-the-box thinking, guys. I wish I had thought of this back in the Reagan Era.
Making a pledge forces you to be accountable not only to others but also to yourself.
Jason Bateman better not slip up and flush after a single. Because we're going to hold him accountable.
Establishing a pledge also offers an opportunity to create community and unity around the cause, thus accelerating one's pursuit. Once you are on record, your community and your peers can and will hold you accountable for results.
This will be Hollywood-style accounting, of course. ("Net profits? What net profits?")
Therefore, we as individuals will be forced to deliver. This may be one of the only positive attributes of our egos. So let us put our egos to work.
And this may be the most honest thing I've ever heard a Hollywood celebrity said.
We call it a Presidential Pledge. We have gathered a group of individuals who share the courage to pledge to our president, and the world at large, what it is that they are willing to do, give, or sacrifice, in an effort to help their fellow man.
Unless P. Diddy has been leaving his lights on because he's afraid of the dark, I don't remember one pledge in that video that showed actual courage. Even the pledge to advance stem cell research was fairly non-controversial, because the argument is over embryonic stem cells in particular, not stem cell research in general.

The people who marched for civil rights in the South when that meant firehoses and police dogs showed courage, Ashton. Afghans reporting the locations of IEDs to Coalition forces when that could mean a death sentence are showing courage. Protesting a dictatorship when that means a life sentence in a prison that really is everything that Guantanamo Bay has been claimed to be is showing courage. Christian missionaries who stay in an war-torn African nation are showing courage. Iraqis who voted despite the threat of terrorist bombs showed courage.

I could go on, but I hope Ashton and his friends get the picture: Courage is not a bunch of successful actors and actresses pledging in a warm, safe studio to do what any decent person should already be doing anyway—or a blogger in a warm, safe apartment taking issue with them.
Our hope is that this effort will inspire others to do the same, with individuals posting their initiatives within their communities. This is not a selfless utopian action. In fact it is a very selfish one. By improving the lives of those who surround us we will in effect improve our own.
Sounds eerily like the reasoning behind Bush's foreign policy of spreading democracy around the world. I didn't know Ashton was on board that.
At the very least. if these pledges allow someone a moment of contemplation as to what they could do, say, or pledge to do for someone else's benefit, we will strengthen the state of our union. If we can build a collective consciousness of service for one another, the echo of these actions will reach beyond our borders. We will stand truer in the resolve that this country is in fact a great one, and we will be one step closer to achieving the goal of creating a nation of philanthropists. I encourage everyone to take a few moments to reflect on how they can serve our great nation and to create their own Presidential Pledge at http://www.myspace.com/presidentialpledge.
The Presidential Pledge did, in fact, make me reflect on many things. Unfortunately, I'm not sure any of them were the ones that Ashton intended.