Every Christmas vacation I choose a “big book” to read, and this year I settled upon a rereading of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It was busy holiday season, and I didn’t finish Bleak House until snowbound for several days during January’s Snowzilla storm.
Bleak House is justly regarded as Dickens’ richest, most complex novel. And much of the novel—even more than I had remembered—is concerned with philanthropy and philanthropists. On one hand, Dickens presents John Jarndyce of Bleak House as a model philanthropist, whose philanthropy is directed to those in his neighborhood or connected to him in some way.
Dickens contrasts Mr. Jarndyce with Mrs. Pardiggle and Mrs. Jellyby whose philanthropy is directed at the Tockahoopo Indians and tribes of Borrioboola-Gha in Africa. Dickens styles these ladies’ work as “telescopic philanthropy” because the objects of their philanthropy are so remote.
Dickens’ sharp critique of telescopic philanthropy was highly germane when he was writing Bleak House, when about one-seventh of philanthropic funds collected by London charitable organizations were directed to overseas philanthropies. Dickens judged that these organizations were blameworthy for neglecting the English poor and attempting to do good in far-away places that they little understood.
Dickens’ critique of telescopic philanthropy is likewise germane today, when Americans give $15 billion annually to global causes. Of course, many of these causes are very worthy, but we must be thoughtful about balancing global causes and urgent needs in our own neighborhoods and country, and about whether we understand the needs of far-away people well enough to do good. So far, Dickens’ time and ours were alike.
However, there is this difference between our time and Dickens’: in Dickens’ time the English gentry and middle class lived with the laboring classes and the poor close at hand. Dickens’ model philanthropist Mr. Jarndyce does not need go on a fact-finding trip or read the newspaper or a fundraising appeal to learn about the needs of those who would benefit from his charity: He lives within a short walk of poor households, he encounters the poor as he goes about his quotidian affairs, and he sees them in church. It is to Mr. Jarndyce’s credit that he responds with charity, but he is able to discover at first hand who needs his assistance and what form of assistance would be useful.
In today’s America, the wealthy and upper middle class are at a great remove from the poor. The wealthy live in “super zips” and the middle class live in neighborhoods far too expensive for working class people, let alone the poor. Fewer people go to church or belong to organizations where they meet up with those of very different socio-economic status, as Charles Murray has detailed in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.
That means that, in today’s America, much philanthropy directed at local causes has acquired a “telescopic” character. Many people drop food off at their local food bank or send money their utility company’s fuel fund without having knowingly met someone who was going hungry or whose gas bill was past due. When we live in neighborhoods where everyone is pretty much at our economic level, we are less likely to see the urgent needs of our fellow citizens and to know how best to help. If so, Dickens’ critique of telescopic philanthropists—and their likely failure to respond adequately and intelligently to those they aspire to assist—may be more important than ever.