Parsing Noblesse Oblige.

Travelling around the world building linkages and creating cooperation in the world-wide research effort to cure multiple sclerosis was an eye-opener in terms of understanding charity. In North America, we have built our own model of noblesse oblige. It is quite different from the European version. Europe built from antiquity. North America built from need. And then there are the countries where charity has been politicized.

Politicizing charity is dangerous when you allow a charity to be co-opted for political purpose. We have that problem at the local level here in Babel with the Conservative Member of Parliament. He is one of Stephen Harper’s drones. He has no use in Ottawa where he is something of an errand boy for cabinet members—to ask the softball questions in Parliament, to extend debate and vote as told. It is in his ignorance and lack of having something to do that he uses local charities in Babel for self promotion. It harms the charities when he loses interest and involvement, it costs them supporters who resent this political intrusion and it creates false expectations among those the charity is supporting.

And politicians have little or no understanding of noblesse oblige. The interpretation in Europe is literal. It is accepted as an obligation. It is not charity. It is a requirement of  society. You ignore the obligation at the risk of censure by your peers. There are funny offshoots of this. In Germany, for example, many of the charities are run and staffed by women. It is considered women’s work. This goes back to feudal times when the lord of the manor ran the farm and his women ministered to the serfs.

In North America, we replaced the nobles with business executives. The oligarchical structure of business and professions made them the logical hunting ground for organizational talent and influence. The only difference was that it was cast in the moral imperative instead of as an obligation of birth or class.

What has also happened over the years is that this involvement has filtered down in business and young people who might not be sought out as a source of funds are volunteering judiciously for select charities to add the information to their resumes. What is good for the boss is good for the page seeking promotion to knighthood.

The glues that link these nobles and pages of business are the people who care. These are people who understand the problem. They often know through first-hand experience, living with or knowing people whom the charity has been created to help. Many of the health charities of today came into existence because of the frustration of these people in seeking aid for those afflicted.

This growing support for charities in North America has taken charity into being a big business sector in itself. It is a major source of employment, of funding for research and of funding for support systems in our society. The concept of noblesse oblige has come a long way.


Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

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