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A Stinging Defense of Caring

June 29, 2011

I’m going to be 50 in one week. I could spend the next 500 words detailing how much that sucks because my body is rebelling against me in some specific and horrible and potentially embarrassing ways, but you know what? Fuhgeddaboudit.

I’m going to be 50 years old in one week and right now, I don’t have time for that bullshit. I have spent my whole life going along and getting along, and while I’ve been outspoken about some things, there are others I have passed over and smiled about and swallowed my words. But tonight I’m not going to. I can’t.

Me & my BFF Stacy, getting our radical on in the rain.

Here’s the deal: I’m flipping around my twitter feed and find out that people are attacking Heather Armstrong because she went to Bangladesh and came back and wrote about it. “Poverty tourism,” they are sneering.

Never mind that Heather wrote about her trip in the most clear-eyed, transparent way. She didn’t write with the attitude of “OMG I saw amazing things in Bangladesh and now I’m going to fix everything.” She was very open about her feelings of helplessness and that she didn’t know what to do to help the people she met, but that she felt compelled to tell their stories.

That was not good enough. The freaking Guardian newspaper attacked her, as Mom-101 talks about in this post. Other bloggers attacked her (not gonna link to them. So there).

They attacked her, basically because she went and learned about Bangladesh and had the temerity to write about it.

The weird irony is that, had she visited and learned about the cathedrals of Europe and written about it, far fewer people would have attacked her (though some still would have, because some people attack her no matter what she does, just because she’s Dooce). Certainly the Guardian wouldn’t have weighed in.

So let’s recap: learning about the conditions people in poverty live in = bad. Traveling around looking at old buildings = Yay! Stuff to cross off your life list.

Makes perfect sense.

What I really want to say to Heather is: screw those people. Non illegitimatum carborundum, as my dad would have said (in fake Latin): don’t let the bastards grind you down.

For me, this is personal, and let me explain why. I grew up with people like that – the “Why bother?” people, the nothing-is-good-enough-to-do-because-it-will-just-lead-to-more-trouble people, the doubters and the deniers and the skeptical.

I have spent years answering their questions about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and trying to justify why it is worth doing and seeing their sneers and enduring their put-downs. And while I’m doing my little bit, they’re sitting on the couch and eating Doritos and rolling their eyes at me.

Well, at 49 years and 51 weeks, I can say I’m proud of the things I have done or have tried to do. Five prisoners of conscience whose cases I worked on with Amnesty International got released from prison. People who were in for doing terrible things like listening to forbidden radio stations. Was that due to something I did? I will never know. Dictators don’t send back postcards saying “Ok, you win.” But I know I tried.

About 10 miles of oak forest stand because a bunch of us environmental wackos said that we didn’t want them chopped down. We yelled and protested and did skits on street corners and got petitions signed. No one sent us a congratulations card when the corporation changed their decision to cut them, but I know those trees still stand.

I’ve supported women from war-torn countries through Women for Women International. I have given Kiva loans. I have written letters and signed petitions. I have volunteered at the soup kitchen and marched and screamed and testified in front of the City Council and Board of Supervisors and the Minerals Management Service.

I don’t know how much good I have done and I never will know. I certainly haven’t done as much as some. But I can say I have tried. I don’t want a reward in heaven. I don’t want praise or a gold star on my permanent record. What I do want, at age 49 and 51 weeks, is for the critics to shut the hell up and let those of us who do give a shit to get on about our business without having to listen to their whining.

If you need any inspiration for ways to contribute to the world being a better place, see any of my other posts for the past 6 weeks.

  1. June 29, 2011 22:46

    Damn right!

  2. Mischief Farm permalink
    June 30, 2011 07:58

    When the illegitimatum start whining, just tune them out and go about your business. Not an easy skill to master, but absolutely worth it in the end. Don’t engage and never justify because you can’t make morons any smarter and really, who cares what they think? Just smile and get back to doing what you want to do. If you feel the need to say anything at all, you can use my old standby: “You do what you want, and I’ll do what I want. Buh-bye!”

    • June 30, 2011 09:04

      As I get older, it gets easier. As a younger person, I was always checking to see if what I was doing was well-received by others – ANY others. Now I check with people I respect if I need validation or advice.

  3. June 30, 2011 08:08

    AMEN! What a great post.

  4. June 30, 2011 08:52

    Yes! Every little bit helps — I love what you’re doing here XOXO

    • June 30, 2011 09:03

      Thanks, Miguelina. I kept wondering if I broke my blog with 50 for 50 but I’m still happy I did it.

  5. June 30, 2011 08:54

    Love your post.

    I don’t understand why as women, as bloggers, as human beings we can’t acknowledge when someone’s doing a good thing, and instead must find a way to tear it apart under the guise of “questioning”.

    Good for you for doing what you did. It’s true, we may never know its reach, but that’s not the point.

    • June 30, 2011 09:03

      Thanks. I don’t know, either. I have had far more questioning than support, it seems. Or maybe I’m just in a mood.

  6. disilusionada permalink
    June 30, 2011 09:06

    The Guardian writer’s piece was not ripping into Heather for daring to “give a shit.” That is the point that is being lost in this dialogue. The point is to put it into context: why do we need white people to go save the poor brown people? Why not empower THEM to tell THEIR OWN stories? Frankly, I don’t give a shit what Heather Armstrong, or any well-off privileged person (including myself, typing this on my macbook pro) has to say about the situation there. They get to go back to their comfortable US lives at the end of the day. I want the people themselves to tell me their stories, I want them to get their own help. They do not need to be saved, they need to be given the tools to save themselves. The Guardian did not attack Heather. It brought up *extremely* valid points. Furthermore, the mom blogging community will never get anywhere if ANY commentary that is not 100% positive is immediately regarded as an “attack.” Grow a thicker skin. This is not a black and white issue.

    • June 30, 2011 09:17

      We may not need white people to go save the poor brown people, but we certainly all need to do our part to help others, and a great place to start might be with those who have the most reaching out to those who have the least means to help themselves. And I think Heather, already having an audience of millions, might be well-positioned to tell stories rather than spending time “empowering” people to tell their own, which would involve building an structure and an audience and teaching writing skills and god knows what else. It’s not a racial issue, and I think it is jerky to try and make it one. I agree that the best helping organizations are like the Carter Center, who ask what local people need and how they can work with them make positive change, rather than imposing a misguided development structure from the outside. But the white vs. ppl of color argument is so freaking tired and is exactly what I’m talking about here. Try to do good, get slammed. My skin is thin, worn down from arguments like this.

    • June 30, 2011 09:31

      The Guardian’s piece was rather cynical, I think. “Poverty tourism” is just inflammatory. Yes, we should empower the “poor brown people,” but I think most of us are at a real loss as to how to do that, so we are doing the best we currently know how. The article as much as said that a lot of the people in those countries doing “charity work” were just dicking around. So what’s the answer? How can I know how to empower people if I have no clue what they really need? How will get a clue unless someone finds out? I think that was the ultimate point of Heather’s trip.

  7. June 30, 2011 09:09

    As always you make clear, precise arguments. I, for one, am grateful for the differences you have made and continue to make. I hope to do the same.

  8. June 30, 2011 09:22

    Happy 50, Suebob.

    I loved this post, and especially loved reading about the things that you’ve done. I firmly believe that we can change the world one person at a time; I’m involved in similar activities. We make a difference, even if it’s only to one person at a time.

    I’m going to say something now that’s going to be wildly unpopular (I predict), but I’m going to say it anyway. When I read Dooce’s post, and I got to the end, I thought…why is there this “Help me pick a charity” thing at the end? She was just in a place that desperately needs help. Why isn’t there instead a statement that says something about picking one of the charities she mentioned that will benefit the area she visited and asking her readers to participate in that? Why a contest asking millions of readers/followers to do the picking? It didn’t make sense to me. It seemed like a disconnect from the rest of the post.

    But I applaud anyone who has the will to get out of their comfortable life and see that there is much misery in the world, some of which we can change. Even small changes can make a huge difference.

  9. June 30, 2011 09:26

    I love the work you do, I love that you are a do-er and not a talker, I love your general position, but I disagree with your criticism of the Guardian post.

    I thought the comments at Mom 101 had the potential to be a tremendous conversation about the purpose of these trips and what they mean, both positive and negative. But, nope, suddenly any who approach from an alternate viewpoint are attacking and then it’s all a Twitter screamfest and oy.

    I have spent most of my professional life working in the nonprofit and philanthropy communities. And you know what? We are pretty damn used to people asking if what we are doing is the best way to help people. In fact, it is a constant conversation. Nonstop. Every day. And no one is accused of “attacking.” Because asking is how we stay accountable and accountability is how we get better.

    Actually, all those hard conversations that I and other people involved in this work have are why the Guardian columnist (and it was an opinion column, not a news article) was even asking those questions. There have been many Dooce-like trips done by NGOs and some of them have been not only patronizing, but dehumanizing. It’s fair to ask about them. And when one of the biggest bloggers in the known universe goes, it’s a fair time for the discussion.

    We should always, always, always continue to act. But I also believe we should always, always, always continue to act better.

    • June 30, 2011 09:33

      This is only a little about the Guardian post, and more about being personally attacked or dismissed or made fun of. I see it all the time, especially in blogging, where people are accused regularly of having the worst intentions when they have only the best. I’m sick of it in my life and I’m sick of it from trolls. If the questioners were at all interested in helping, that would be appreciated. It’s the accusing and eye-rolling that I’m tired of.

      • June 30, 2011 10:06

        I know it was, but this is one of the only sane bastions for me to say, “You know? The question was justified.”

        The problem is that it is impossible to be a questioner these days. No one is allowed to question. “Questioner” becomes “critic” and “critic” becomes “I LOVE HEATHER HOW DARE YOU.”

        And that’s what I, at 36 years, 17 weeks, and 5 days, am sick of. I’m sick of not being allowed to ask questions without having my motives doubted. (Please note this didn’t happen to me directly in this case. I am extrapolating my own issues here, much as you are.)

        But we are united in our disdain for the eyerollers. I really hate the eyerollers and consider them to be a canker on society. There is no defense for them.

        • June 30, 2011 10:35

          I understand. The blog world does seem to tilt to either troll or fangirl, with little room in between for discussion and thought.

  10. June 30, 2011 09:52

    thank you. for you. and everything you do. the trees. the prisoners. the hungry. the strangers who received a smile. and a loan. and just, well, all your encouraging words.

    you are making a difference. every single one of your 49 years and fifty one weeks and counting. here’s to many more. xo

    • June 30, 2011 09:55

      Thanks, Jen. I appreciate that. And I know most people are doing what they can. It’s just those few…grrrr.

  11. June 30, 2011 10:12

    Amen x a million. Someone told me about the thing last night and I laughed. I guess at nearly 37, I too am at a place where I don’t care. There will always be doubters – I’m too busy doubting myself on going back to school to pay attention to opinions on internet crap. I mean, good for Dooce and all, but in the grand scheme of things – who cares what Anna Whackjob says about something she very clearly knows nothing about? That woman has a history of filling in the gaps with made up fiction, all in the name of page views (& quite possibly she needs the attention). She ought to put her energy toward writing actual stories – or basket weaving. With her imagination, she would make a great author.

    In the end, those of us who truly care about humanity will move forward regardless of the weight of those who try to pull us down. There’s a stock answer for people like that, and I’m sure I will use it in my career when someone is being that way, or gossiping or whatever:

    “How is this productive?”

    Keep on, keeping on Sue. You’re definitely one of my favorite people in the world and you’re doing amazing things just by being true. xo

  12. June 30, 2011 10:23

    What the crap on twitter last night amounted to was a blogger bitch fight between Dooce and someone who wishes she *were* Dooce.

    Plain and simple.

    And if those poor brown people, as one commenter put it, could empower themselves, don’t you think they’d have done so by now?

    Charity and compassion should be color blind.

    • June 30, 2011 10:34

      That’s been an ongoing situation. More Golden Shit Stirrer Award candidates…

  13. June 30, 2011 11:00

    The whole debacle made me feel tired and sad. There was and is a real debate to be had, which you so articulately point out. What CAN we do? HOW do we do it? Heather clearly realizes that her role here is to spread the word and direct people to the organizations that are actively and directly working to improve the lives of people in Bangladesh. I see nothing wrong with what she’s doing or how she’s doing it.

    • June 30, 2011 11:41

      Yes, the lunacy never seems to stop. But, like you, I’m on the side of doing something instead of waaahing about it.

  14. blacklid permalink
    June 30, 2011 11:21

    We are all here for the words. The words that I want to read are the ones that “bear good fruit”, as they say. That makes it easy to tell which side I believe in. Thanks to you, sweeney and dooce, and other twitter folk, I am joining today to do what I can.

    • June 30, 2011 11:40

      Cool! Kiva is so much fun. I love “shopping” for new loans.

  15. June 30, 2011 11:30

    I missed this kerfuffle; I miss most kerfuffles because I don’t give a shit about them. I do give a shit about trying to make the world a little better every day, in my way, and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve read every single one of your run up to 50 posts.

    • June 30, 2011 11:40

      What am I going to do for post 50? I am honestly baffled…

      • July 1, 2011 11:30

        How about an arts/culture charity? Someplace working with kids to teach them art or theater or music or dance?

        • July 2, 2011 07:20

          I was trying to do national charities, and the performing arts thing is by necessity local…that’s why the lack. I did think about it!

  16. June 30, 2011 11:38

    You are good people, Suebob. Good fucking people.

  17. June 30, 2011 11:41

    Preach it, sister.

  18. June 30, 2011 11:41

    I have no trouble with people doing good. Anywhere… Anytime..
    But I can see the trouble with this. I can see how some might call it “poverty tourism” and I can certainly see how people have trouble with Dooce being the messenger.

    First off is the fact that it was a sponsored trip. Personally, I have a problem with someone like Dooce, who, by all accounts can afford her own travel, using funds that certainly could be used to help the very people that she’s there to see. No matter how moved or devoted she may be, it just doesn’t sit well. There are people in many places doing “good” everyday on their own dime. The exposure that she provides may be worth a ton in the end, but in the meantime, it looks like she robbed the poor box.

    Then, there’s the fact that they didn’t really “do” anything. They talked, they observed…but in terms of immediate need, they did nothing. Yes, they learned, but, learning is a personal gain. They didn’t build a clinic, train anyone in anything, bring anything other than themselves. Yes, there will be exposure and yes, it will be beneficial in the end but, for right this second at best it looks like poverty tourism and at the worst it looks like a vanity trip.

    This is not a situation where someone DECIDED to give of themselves, this is a situation where someone was ASKED to give of themselves. For regular folks no one cares about the means used to get to the end, but wield the kind of cyber power that Dooce does and people are going to care. Power has its price and there are going to be people who disagree. And that doesn’t make them trolls or evil, crazy, or whatever. It just makes them people who disagree. Dooce’s chosen profession has put her in the public eye and just like anyone else in the public eye, she’s going to get booed now and again. That’s life. Hopefully her participation will result in some good things for folks who need it. Ultimately that’s all that really matters. At least that’s what I’ve learned in my 45 years…

    • June 30, 2011 12:18

      Heather has said she paid for the trip herself, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. She has also said she is still contemplating what to do. So I’m back not understanding how she did anything wrong.

    • June 30, 2011 13:19

      The *posts* were sponsored, not the trip.

      And really, whether she was asked to go or not, ultimately she still had to *decide* whether to go, to weigh the benefits of it and whether or not the reaction in her community would help or hinder the greater good.

      Its one thing to ask legitimate questions, to have legitimate debate. Yesterday went far beyond debate.

  19. June 30, 2011 11:52

    I can’t really say anything about this particular issue since I missed all of it. But I love what you do, Suebob. You’ve helped a lot of people, including me, and I would never roll my eyes at anything. I admire people who can actually get things done because I don’t feel like I do enough. I can sometimes throw a dollar or two at my favourite charity but right now, that’s about it. Just so you know, there are some people who are standing on the sidelines with their Doritos, cheering you on.

  20. June 30, 2011 11:53

    Excellent Post. Thanks for sharing. Bottom line… anyone who stands up to do something, anything, to help another gets my vote. The doubters that choose to criticize the good done by others and honest feelings of others in a public forum should be given a “time out” from the web for awhile. It helped no one. I hope all the shit that got thrown last night ends up giving Heather even more momentum!

    • June 30, 2011 12:20

      To me, this post wasn’t about going back and forth on Twitter as much as it was a rant against dismissiveness in the face of effort. There will always be trolls who put down anything good that people try to do – especially Heather, since she is a big target – and it is wearysome.

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