The Power of Pity
A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
"We're not the world!," sang out the delightful little girl with the
blonde curls. "We're snotty children!"
Her Grandmother, the Pity Maven, looked at her with alarm.
"We don't intend to make a better world! We were just fibbing!" Her singing wasn't all that good, to be honest, but she put a lot of joy into it, the unpretentious kind.
"Melissa!," the Pity Maven scolded. "Grandma said that song is only for at home, didn't she?!?"
Melissa giggled gleefully. "But I like it! We're not the wor - "
The kid shut up with a pout.
I met the Pity Maven, an aging Yup with shaggy gray hair, backstage at a benefit concert in Queens. I recognized her because I've seen her on a couple of talk shows and (I think) a soda commercial. I seem to remember she ran for some elective office a year or two ago, but for the life of me I can't recall when or for what...
I don't flatter myself by thinking she recognized me. I was wearing a 'Press' pass, and I'm pretty sure she was pouncing on anyone with same. I had the impression she'd had a drink or two, so maybe she was just victimizing anyone with a pliable ear.
Melissa seemed willing to keep the family secrets, so she gave me her full attention. Or as full as her attention ever got... Her grey eyes kept sliding off me, as if she were looking for someone.
She said: "The world is changing before our eyes..."
"Yes," she confirmed. "We have within our grasp the chance to alter the course of history! We can wipe out hunger within our lifetime!"
Three drinks? "...how?"
"Why, with benefits like this one! Do you know how much money we've raised!?!"
"...does it matter?"
The Pity Maven was adamant: "What do you mean does it matter!?! Of course it matters!"
With some people, I know I'd be better off just walking away... "To whom?"
"Why, to the starving, of course! Why do you think I'm here!?!"
"...I have a few ideas," I mumbled.
"What was that?"
"Nothing..." Deep breath. "Look, I don't want to rain on your parade... But the money you've raised today, the money from 'Live Aid', the money collected by churches and schoolkids and mothers marching door-to-door... None of it will make a difference in the long run."
"If you're here to save the 'starving', you're here for nothing..."
Sigh... "The problem cannot be addressed by charity."
She was strident: "Do you know how much money has been raised!?! How many people will be fed!?!"
"...fed how many times?"
I said, "You're all acting on the presumption that these starving people need only eat one meal for life. You provide that one meal and claim that you've defeated hunger... But they'll be hungry again tomorrow, and you'll have done nothing to address the real issue..."
"Over forty nations have wiped-out hunger in our lifetime!," she spouted.
I smiled. "...with charity?"
"Why you - " She cut herself off, wiping the angry expression from her face. "I don't know what you mean!"
"In the nations you're talking about, it wasn't charity that wiped out hunger. It was greed. You know what greed is, don't you? As I recall, you campaigned against it..."
"Greed is evil!"
"Greed is good by your own standard of feeding the starving. Greed is how the starving get fed."
"In the face of mass starvation, the greedy must renounce their good!"
"...is that what you're doing?," I murmured.
"I didn't catch that."
"Nothing... Face it, if you want the 'starving' to be fed for more than a few meals, you have to permit the market to function."
She stamped her foot. "Greed is evil!"
"...but forced famine is not?"
"We can't interfere with the internal policies of another nation!," she parried.
"Hmm... That's not what you said about South Africa."
"It's not the same thing!," she sputtered. "South Africa is a racist tyranny!"
"...where nobody starves."
"Where whites kill blacks!"
"True," I said. "No quarrel. Of course, the five- hundred murders in South Africa aren't much in comparison to the tens of thousands of murders in Ethiopia..."
"It's not the same thing!"
"...I guess not," I mumbled. "No TV specials, for one thing..."
"What did you say?"
The Pity Maven said: "Just think of the power we have!"
"...power over whom?"
"Not power over anyone. Just power." She smiled; it wasn't a pleasant thing to see. "The whole world is watching us!"
"Yeah," she mused. "Think of all the vote - I mean - viewers!"
"...do politicians ever think of anything else..."
"What was that?"
Melissa had begun to sing again: "There's a chance we're taking! We're saving our careers! So drink another Pepsi down, then have a Miller Beer!"