The Thinking 

Promiscuous Compassion Revisited

July 15, 2011



Today I found and greatly enjoyed an older post of yours with the title, “Questions on Race and Christianity.” That was an excellent discussion of a volatile topic. At one point you said this, “The command ‘to love one’s neighbor as one’s self’ is exaggerated by modern liberals to mean that whites should participate in the destruction of their own nations. Loyalties that should be applied to individuals or small groups are broadened to encompass all of humanity.” This instantly reminded me of Thomas Fleming’s brilliant analysis of this phenomenon, which he has called “the pornography of compassion.” I’m sure that other thinkers have picked up on how outlandish it is to interpret those words of Christ as if they were a global mandate for social justice, but I find that Fleming’s work on this topic has been particularly illuminating. As I study your writing, I can’t help assuming that you are somewhat familiar with Fleming’s thought. Have you ever read his excellent book, The Morality of Everyday Life: An Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition? That is the book where I found his tremendous argument about the pornography of compassion. I found an article online that contains a nutshell of the argument, this particular article being Fleming’s analysis of the somewhat cynical (and all-too-predictable) coverage of the tsunami that struck Asia and Africa several years ago. Fleming writes:

The truth is that we are more affected by the death of a pet hamster than we are by the death of 150,000 strangers to whom we are not bound by ties of history, kinship, or religion.

That most people agree with this cold-blooded conclusion is evident from all the national news reports. The Italian press was filled with heart-rending stories about killed and missing Italians; the BBC focused on British victims; American newspapers and networks talked mostly of Americans. One Islamic physicians’ group maintained its religious identity by saying that jihad was more important than ministering to the victims. What this means is clear: We feel little sorrow for the sufferings of strangers, but, if we are stirred up by the yellow press, we will clutch at anything to establish an imaginary bond of sympathy. The “pornography of compassion,” as I have described the phenomenon in The Morality of Everyday Life, is one of the hallmarks of the liberal mind-set. When the Lisbon earthquake wiped out a goodly part of the Portuguese capital in 1755, Voltaire rejected the cheery optimism he had imbibed from Leibniz and began railing against human suffering. He also, in a private letter, exulted that so many priests had been killed. Scratch an humanitarian, and you almost always find an anti-Christian. Samuel Johnson, by contrast, was at first skeptical about the numbers and, when they proved to be more or less correct, still refused to jump on the humanitarian bandwagon. The word he reserved for such enthusiasms was cant, and what was cant in 1755 is cant today. Voltaire’s sanctimonious poem on the “Lisbon Earthquake” led directly to his greatest anti-Christian squib, Candide, and we have been plagued ever since by the cynical sentimentalism that raises trillions of dollars to help strangers while poisoning us against the needs of family, neighbors, and friends. The Christian Dr. Johnson taught us that suffering and death are part of the human condition, and blaming God for our misery or pretending it is not so will not change that condition.

As you can see, Fleming really gets the point of all the mainstream-media posturing about remote, international humanitarian suffering: that it is the civic duty of whites to transcend the primitive notion that those who are nearby have a more urgent claim upon our charitable impulses than do far-flung natives in poorer areas of the world.

But in viewing local charitable activity as less vital than global do-gooding, liberals show how little concern they have for the up close and personal dimension of the cost of discipleship. This is hardly surprising because, even when liberals attempt to broaden the scope of the true meaning of ‘neighbor,’ whether they are doing so as sincere Christians or as Voltaire-type utopian liberals, they are actually stretching Christ’s teaching into a shape that cannot be sustained. I believe that this misreading of the command ‘to love one’s neighbor as one’s self’ could stem from several possible sources.

One of course is the phenomenon Fleming notes: it’s much more enjoyable to limit your charitable activities to the long-distance arrangements being heralded by the internationalists, for when you donate money to refugees in Darfur rather than, say, volunteering time in your local homeless shelter, the charitable act is enhanced by the flavor of the exotic. And as you also mention in the line I quoted, there is a related assumption within the liberal interpretation of that commandment that whites do well to ‘participate in the destruction of their own nations’; in the case of the liberal American who assumes that his donation will do more good in Darfur than in the local homeless shelter, he is agreeing that in the face of so much human suffering, the only noble thing to do is to facilitate the vast transfer of Western wealth and resources to the impoverished third world.

I think another possible explanation for the liberal misunderstanding of true charity is that perhaps the liberal is conflating one Christian commandment (‘to love one’s neighbor as one’s self’) with another, “Go into all the world, and make disciples.” The conflation is of course disastrous, and also utterly groundless from the perspective of Christian moral teaching. If I am correct in thinking that the pornography of compassion involves a mis-mapping of the Great Commission onto the “love your neighbor” commandment, then it is clear that the liberal’s error is in ignoring another important teaching of Christ: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from out of the mouth of God.”

 Obviously, materialism (and a concomitant anti-supernaturalism) underlies liberal assumptions, hence the impatient clamor for ‘social’ justice, as if the members of society could meaningfully arraign entire cultures, eras of history, or national groupings and then pronounce verdicts that would lead to socially just arrangements. The liberal, then, ignoring or denying Christ’s emphasis upon eternal truth as more essential to human life than food, insists that Christianity has to be a program for global food distribution. But it is no such thing; Christ did indeed have a worldwide thrust to his ministry, but it was not primarily mammon, nor even manna, that he was bidding his followers to distribute globally; rather the emphasis was upon spreading the eternal truth of his words to all nations. Needless to say, he was also plenty concerned about the hunger and physical well-being of those he encountered, but these issues were clearly subsidiary to his emphasis that we are to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Laura writes:


I haven’t read that particular book of Fleming’s, but it seems obvious that promiscuous compassion, which exalts charitable works not only in far-flung nations but in every arena that is non-white (no one is bragging about helping white South Africans), stems from the spiritual disorders you mention and from rampant egotism.  (I would dispute Fleming’s statement that we are more affected by the death of a pet hamster than the death of 150,000 strangers in an alien land. That’s a bit of an overstatement.) 

Liberalism creates a need to prove goodness in spectacular ways. People cling to this perversion of the Christian ideal as their love of things enfolds them and as directionlessness commands their private lives. The more liberalism disarms virtue in everyday life, and exalts selfishness, the more it places the primitive and the exotic on an altar.  


                                            — Comments —

Fred Owens writes:

Charity begins at home. Surely that is the truth, and just as surely, it does not end there, but charity spreads outwardly, from the family, to friends neighbors, to fellow countrymen, and to all human beings. To me, true loving charity spreads outward like a ripple on a pond.

We love our own children more than anything, but a heart that is full does not calculate the measure of love, but begins to add other children, and spreads naturally to people like ourselves, but there is no need to confine love to people like ourselves. The source of love is infinite, it only passes through us.

Yes, there is phony concern for starving infants in sub-Sahara Africa, complete with heart-rending photos. I call it leap-frogging, to ignore the suffering in one’s own community, to pass that over for a false but romantic concern for people on the other side of the globe.

So we should always be sure to be grounded in our own families and restore those often broken bonds, but — I’m repeating myself — love has natural abundance — like the earthquake victims in Japan — I only saw the videos, and I know very little about Japanese people and their customs, but I felt a genuine concern and I made a donation to what I believed was a responsible charity.

I know you are not arguing against foreign charity, but arguing positively for the home, which is the earthly source of charity.

Laura writes:

It is unnatural to be indifferent to suffering far away, but it is also unnatural to put it above our own survival as a nation or people.


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