If the clown nose fits, wear it

(Warning: It’s possible that I’m about to directly insult some of you.)

There’s a stupid and wasteful tradition, dishonestly masquerading as “charity,” that’s been going on in the UK for some years now, that has recently made its way to the United States. I’m talking about Red Nose Day. It’s coming up on May 26. The gimmick is: you buy a red clown nose for a dollar, and your dollar (or at least a small fraction of it, after multiple layers of administrative costs) gets used to “fight” something called “child poverty.”

Or at least, that’s what you’re meant to accept that the gimmick is. But it isn’t, really. The true gimmick here is: you spend a dollar, you conspicuously show off your charitable “work” by wearing a red clown nose, and you fool yourself into thinking you’ve done something about a problem you don’t even faintly understand. Then you pat yourself on the back, return to your normal life, and forget all about “child poverty,” whatever that is, for the rest of the year, having done your fair share to “fight” it. Good for you. Those poor kids really owe you one.

The whole thing is a scam. And the scammer is you, the one wearing a clown nose and pretending it means something other than “I’m a clown.”

Solving a problem, or making any measurable difference at all, requires immersion in reality. So let’s talk about the reality you’re ignoring. Did you notice the Quotation Marks of Disrespect around “child poverty” up above? I used them because neither you nor I know what that term actually means. Is it in some way separable from the poverty of these poor children’s parents? Is there any actual difference between regular poverty and “child poverty”? Is there such a thing as poverty that doesn’t affect children?

Also, what exactly is poverty in the first place? How poor is poor? Does it mean starvation, struggling to survive? Does it mean having parents whose income falls below some arbitrary number dreamed up by people you know nothing about, using standards you can’t guess? Does it mean not having a top tier dental plan? Does it apply to those who have a huge income, but throw it all away through chronic gambling? Or does it simply mean having less money than the rich kid down the street, regardless of how easily your basic needs are met?

And in the unlikely event that we can reach a consensus about definitions, what are our goals? How do we identify the right kids to benefit from our largesse? How do we make sure our dollar achieves maximum impact? What causes child poverty, and how can we target that? Is it having poor parents? Is it having parents who make stupid decisions? Is it lack of education? How do we make sure our effort actually benefits poor kids, and doesn’t just reward bad parents for keeping their children poor and stupid? How do we measure our success against the goals we’ve chosen? How will we know whether we’re making things better or worse?

“Stop making things complicated. I just want to help.” No you don’t, because you can’t help without answering those questions. You just can’t. In fact, if you choose to ignore those questions, and try to substitute the purchase of an idiot clown nose for thinking, then you don’t, in fact, give a damn about child poverty. And helping isn’t what you want in the first place. You want to feel like a good person. But a clown nose does not confer moral credit, no matter how cheaply you sell your dignity.

“But at least I’m doing something.” Why on earth do you think this counts as “doing something”? You aren’t. You’re fooling yourself into thinking you’ve done something. The only beneficiary of this idiot charade is you, the idiot wearing the idiot clown nose. No child’s life is going to change. In fact, your indifference to reality is making it harder for anything to change.

To borrow a fitting phrase from someone I don’t really admire, your stupid clown act discharges the energy for change while maintaining the status quo. You are, in fact, being counterproductive, and creating a barrier to change. Suppose a hero comes along who actually cares enough to do the work you’ve spat upon, and identifies the true nature and source of child poverty. Suppose he finds an actual solution to it. If he comes to you looking for support, you and your red-nosed friends will show him your upraised hands and say, “Hey, I already did my part. I wore a clown nose.” And when that day arrives, you will fully deserve that clown nose. In all justice, it would become a permanent part of your face.

The entire goal, the entire purpose of Red Nose Day, is to help you deceive yourself into thinking you’ve done something good, without any actual understanding and without any measurable impact. It’s yet another effort to create a moral shortcut, a way to simulate being a good person without the work of making good choices.

But you can’t. Good choices require thought. They require investigating your values, and living like you know what they are. I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you’ve played the “Let’s all pretend we have values” game. Remember when you stopped child abuse by changing your Facebook image to a cartoon character? Hmm, how many children do you think have better lives because you did that? Is this the first time you’ve been asked that question?

If you actually gave a damn about making a difference, you’d demand to know how much difference your idiot clown nose made. Have you done that? Of course you haven’t. That’s not the part you care about.

If you actually care, then go find a disadvantaged kid who’s worthy of your support, and teach that kid a useful life skill. It won’t take all that long, and it’ll make an actual difference in actual reality. If you don’t want to help an actual kid who is trying to navigate through the blessings and challenges of life in the real world, then stop pretending there’s an abstraction called “child poverty” that matters to you. It plainly doesn’t. And for god’s sake don’t buy a red clown nose. Have some dignity.

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