Our house was the newest on the block in a middling middle class neighborhood, where most of the houses were frame bungalows or two-story stucco houses built decades earlier. Ours was made of brick, but it was hardly luxurious and certainly not ostentatious. Nevertheless, our neighbors thought we were rich.
One day a neighbor, a widow whom my mother knew from community and school events, dropped by to ask my mother for a modest loan. As I recall, she asked for $200, which was more then than it is now. My mother figured she could afford it, and wrote out a check. My mother didn't mind so much that the neighbor never paid her back; she understood that she probably didn't have it, and understood the risk, such as it was. She never asked for it. The woman avoided her ever after that, and once, at the supermarket, my mother saw her turn her shopping cart into another aisle to avoid a meeting. It was the end of their friendship.
"The taker hates a giver," my father mused. That was probably part of it. Jealousy and humiliation also came into play. The neighbor woman no doubt figured that my mother could afford it and wouldn't miss it. Wasn't ours the newest house on the block? If the taker doesn't necessarily hate the giver, envy inevitably becomes contempt.
I've been thinking about this, reading the criticism of America at the United Nations and the learned commentary of pundits across the world, aiming their churlish criticism at us in the wake of the great Asian tsunami. The waves had barely receded before the director of relief for the United Nations, whose smug feelings of "humanitarian superiority" are largely financed by the United States, led the carping at America for what it had not yet had time to do.
Some of our own pundits have joined the fun. America the stingy has become the reigning clich?n certain op-ed pages. President Bush is the richest guy on the block because he's the head of the richest nation in the world. He can never do quite enough, and no matter what he does his motives are judged with something less than appreciation. This time it's not so much what he has or hasn't done; he's the American president and that's indictment enough.
Whatever America does, it's not from generosity. We're "able to afford it." If we don't measure up to an abstract standard imposed by our critics (who may or may not be generous themselves), we're a bunch of Scrooges. President Bush first said the United States would contribute $15 million; this was before anyone imagined the epic scope of the disaster. He raised this to $35 million within hours, then quickly to $350 million.
His press got only a little better as individual Americans, as they always will, began to pour millions into private relief organizations. Aircraft carriers, accompanied by full battle groups, were dispatched to Sumatra and Sri Lanka, with squadrons of helicopters assigned to deliver the crates of water, food and clothing arriving from all over the world. A new hospital ship sailed for Southeast Asia. Soon this was then cast - even by the Associated Press - merely as an attempt by the president to quiet criticism of American stinginess.
It's been a long time since Winston Churchill paid tribute to the United States as the one nation "whose power arouses no fear and whose pre-eminence excites no jealousy." We excite fear, jealousy and rebuke most of the time. The Marshall Plan restored the economies of Europe, those of France and Germany foremost among them, but gratitude soon enough became surly resentment.
It's important for Americans to keep in mind that we help others not for their gratitude but because it's the right thing to do. Generosity, like virtue, is its own reward.
President Bush appointed his father and Bill Clinton to lead the nationwide fundraising campaign to help victims of the tragedy and the sight of the three of them standing together, having pushed aside recollections of bitter campaigning in the past, made us proud. In Hollywood, some of the stars are twinkling about something other than Bush-bashing. Sandra Bullock, who gave a million dollars to victims of Sept. 11 terrorism, donated a million dollars to Red Cross tsunami relief.
If Americans are stingy, let's hear a little applause for stinginess. When disaster strikes, the world best be wary of getting run over by American shopping carts racing to the rescue.