We don’t often think of the United States as the object of charity. But this weekend’s Washington Post ran a feature by its National Editor and Middle East reporting veteran Rajiv Chandrasekaran about how United Arab Emirates -- the world’s fourth-largest exporter of oil, with the world’s seventh-greatest per capita income -- has made the United States an object of its charity.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) spent millions in Joplin, Missouri, to build a neonatal ICU at a Joplin hospital badly damaged by the May 2011 tornado that ripped through the city -- and bought every high-school student a laptop computer to replace textbooks lost in the storm.
As Chandrasekaran describes, these charitable gifts we met with mixed reactions:
The decision to accept the UAE money prompted an angry response from a few residents, and it sparked rants from some conservative radio commentators -- one of them, Debbie Schlussel, accused the school system of taking “Islamic blood money” -- but [Joplin Public School Superintendent C. J. Huff stood firm. “I can live with the hate mail,” he said. “It’s the right thing for the kids.”
Huff said he sees no shame in accepting foreign aid to help his students. “Part of being a good neighbor is not just knowing how to give, but also how to receive,” he said. “It would be great if we had the money to pay for the laptops ourselves. But we didn’t. Sometimes you have to be willing to put pride in your pocket and accept gifts.”
Browsing the comments to Chandrasekaran’s article one finds the same mix of appreciate for the UAE gifts and deep suspicion of its motives.
The article notes that other countries have engaged in charitable enterprises in the United States without prompting the same controversy:
Many other nations also spend money in the United States, but much of it is devoted to promoting their respective languages, traditions and national interests through educational grants, study-abroad programs and cultural centers, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and France’s Alliance Francaise.
Why are the UAE gifts controversial while these German and French ones are not? The obvious answer is that, two generations removed from World War II but only a dozen years removed from 9/11, Americans have more fraught feelings about the Middle East than about Europe. Another answer is that an American philanthropist could have, in theory, built a hospital unit or supplied textbooks in Joplin, but that only the Germans and the French can supply German and French culture to Americans. Similarly, when a Canadian flight crew rescued a U.S. doctor from Antarctica in the middle of the polar winter, this was not seen as impeaching U.S. capabilities but as drawing upon an ally’s unique capabilities. There’s no shame, on this view, of accepting something that another can provide uniquely.
There’s something to these explanations for the discomfort about the UAE gifts -- explanations that focus on Americans’ views of the donor countries.
However, an equally important explanation for the discomfort concerns how we Americans view ourselves. For many generations, Americans thought of themselves as having the virtue Aristotle called munificence -- liberality on a grand scale, usually made to carry out public enterprises, and marked by not mere great expense but also carried out with a moral purpose. The munificent man, and the munificent nation, not only spends more than others but does so to greater effect because he gives in order to realize a conception of what is good and beautiful.
Implementing the Marshall Plan was a munificent act. Establishing Radio Free Europe was a munificent act, as was the commitment of billions of dollars, starting in 2003, to slow the spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Aristotle thought the munificent man was properly universally admired -- and could take pride in his position (humility not being an Aristotelian virtue).
The munificent man, according to Aristotle, is wholly self-sufficient, never hesitates over small economies, and never fails to give what is needed.
And yet, it seems, America was not self-sufficient for the needs in Joplin. And this injury to American pride -- and worry, perhaps even tacit admission, that America may no longer be "America the munificent" -- is perhaps what makes the UAE gifts so controversial.