Home Editorial

Absent Civic Citizenship

A basic difference between the West and the East in attitude towards ideal citizenship is rather pronounced and fits into a familiar stereotype. Once again, it is about a rather closed-ended, but definitely tangible materialistic outlook towards the ways of the society, pitted against another that leans towards a more abstract and by that virtue, intangible and extended notions of society and social structures. Hence, in the Western context one often gets to hear individuals talk of model citizenship as constituting of paying ones taxes honestly, respecting rule of law etc. Interestingly, the list of virtues includes one other quality, namely that of donating to charity. Mark Zuckerberg who pledged to gift away 99 percent of his Facebook fortune to charity recently, is the latest demonstration of this. Philanthropy is structured into the Western society and many explain this not just a matter of large-heartedness or selflessness, but more a question of what is referred to as enlightened self-interest. The benefits of the money an individual gives to charity will on the one hand directly benefit the needy, but in an indirect and roundabout way, they would come to the donor as well, not just in a metaphysical way, but also very much materialistically. Another American Mark Twain, put this very succinctly towards the beginning of the 20th Century, when he opposed the American government’s move to shut down some government schools in poor localities as they were proving to be a financial strain, saying what the government saved by shutting down these schools, would have to be spent building more jails ultimately if these schools were shut. There are plenty more examples, but first a little more elaboration on the institutional structure of this philanthropy. In Italy’s income tax law for instance has a clause whereby a tax payer can give 0.8 percent of his income tax due to any of a list of government recognized religious charitable organisations. If the individual does not wish to do so, he or she will have to in any case pay the amount to the government. Many actually pay the 0.8 to religious charitable organisations (as IFP found out during a trip some years ago) and the country being 95 percent Catholic, a majority of this public charity go to Catholic organisations, Charitas being just one of the most prominent, and a name familiar to many developing countries. Now to say that 0.8 percent of the income tax base of a developed nation is respectable is an understatement and this is the kind of money available with this nongovernment sector to do charitable work, including setting up schools and hospitals for the weaker sections, and not the least to spread the religion. The general attitude of suspicion often associated with the funds of Catholic missionaries have should be allayed somewhat by this knowledge that much of it come from voluntary donations. For the West, donating to charity is an intuitive individual strategy for achieving social harmony.

This enlightened self-interest is seen in other Western countries too. The USA for instance must rank top in terms of the number of extremely rich trusts and foundations, funding charitable projects, not just within the country but internationally. It is also true that a good many the top bureaucrats in New Delhi have children studying in the US on some fellowship provided by these American trusts. Understandably, if one’s son or daughter is studying in America on American scholarship, or is working there after the programme, one would most likely have at least something nice to say about America. The implication is, this charity has a bearing on international diplomacy and politics too. The enlightened self-interest here is obvious. Former chairman of Chrysler Lee Iacocca in his irreverent and crass criticism of Henry Ford-II his former boss and later sworn enemy, (in his autobiography: “Lee Iacocca”) puts this in a crass and distasteful way when he claimed that Ford was interested in uplifting the working class and creating a middle class so that they would have the money to buy his cars. Iacocca’s statement may have been a result of personal spite, all the same he outlined a deep and basic psychology behind Western philanthropy – you get as much as you give.

Contrast this with the Eastern notion of a model citizen. The mantra all of us have heard and internalized from early childhood, is that good citizenship basically constitutes of respecting one’s parents, elders, teachers, etc. A good man here donates (makes sacrifices) to temples in the hope of divine rewards, but forgets about making a contribution to charity from which orphans and destitute can benefit. The civic nature of citizenship is treated as secondary, and one which would follow as a corollary of the first set of values. Citizenship is no longer something the structure of the state can help mould, but a spiritual, a non-materialistic goal. Public charity plays little part in this scheme of things too. Hence, while India has many super rich citizens, charitable trusts rich enough to fund social projects in a big way still remains negligible.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Exit mobile version