As the fiscal year draws to a close, the various institutions and organizations with which you have been aligned or involved will be knocking again on your door - perhaps multiple times, or via multiple media. For example, I just got an email, a phone call, postal mail, and a facebook message from my undergraduate institution. (And yes, Swarthmore, there is a Santa Claus.)
If your experience is anything like mine thus far, you may notice that this year these entreaties sound a little desperate in their honeyed cooing, plying you with thank you gifts and the promise of both the philosophical and practical end results of philanthropy. And lets face it -- if your experience is anything like mine, you yourself may feel a little desperate. Like millions, you are barely if at all in the black financially (forget about loans and debts), warding off (if not in fact facing) the specter of unemployment, of perhaps even ...moving back home?
So, you may not take to kindly to what I'm going to suggest... but I hope you take a minute to listen. Because not only despite but in fact especially in these current circumstances, I'm going to suggest that it's your responsibility to tithe. To give whatever you can to whomever you can, in support of the programs and people that you believe in and want to see stick around. That you should identify local, regional, national, and international projects you support, schools you support, even individual people whose work you want to support -- in addition to your expenses, if you can, but perhaps in place of some of your current expenses, if not. Because now more than ever, we are all at a tipping point: and you can continue to buy a coffee every day rather than making one at home, or you can give that $60 this month to your public radio station. Do you see where I'm going with this? Ok, let's back up for a second.
Despite our often teetering foothold on financial stability, we all already agree to "tithe" for our erstwhile public systems. That is to say, even if we don't understand (or support) our governmental systems or choices, we (well, most of us) pay our taxes, with the large percentage of the population somewhere on the scale between grumbling under our breath to vocally livid about where that taxation goes. Depending on your tax bracket, you give between 10 to 35% of your income to your government, perhaps more to your city and state, to support civic programs and the agendas of, well, others. If you are deeply engaged in your local, regional, or perhaps the national government, I still don't know if you would say these programs were "yours" or "ours."
It doesn't take much investigation to see without a doubt that the motivations behind the systems that regulate our environment, our schools, our public spaces, our housing, our transportation, our agriculture, our health care, our cultural resources, and increasingly, our media, (need I go on?) are not, in fact, populist in nature.
To put it bluntly: deeply complex, interdependent global networks of money and power have a stranglehold on government activity. Period.
So, basically, your taxes suck. They don't suck because the conceptual idea of tithing is a bad one, or because public institutions should not exist (I've been known to love a library in particular*). They don't suck because we shouldn't pay to have these things. Quite the opposite: this is our world, and our life, and if we care about it, we *should* be willing to give whatever we can to make it the world we want to live in. They suck because if you're in the pretty massive category that would self-define as somewhere between "unsatisfied" and "deeply angry," the taxes that you are paying aren't (in large part) going to support the programs and institutions you'd like to see operational here. They suck because they are often going to support programs and institutions you'd perhaps like to see never again operational here.
So here's the thing. As much as I am somewhere-between-unsatisfied-and-deeply-angry I don't think we can get around paying taxes...(well, yet). Many have taken a stand and run the risk of not paying, but this is not a battle I'm choosing to fight right now. Government -- it's there, it's vastly flawed, and its rivers run deep through territory I don't want to traverse. I'm not getting any deeper into the conversation about how it's a shadow-play/illusion/hyperreal projection here, but for the record... DUH. That's why I refuse to engage.
What I also know for sure, though, is that in a parallel universe (in which we somehow, also live) there exist countless amazing people committed to making our environment, our schools, our public spaces, our housing, our transportation, our agriculture, our health care, our cultural resources, and our media accessible, sustainable, functional, beautiful, and loving at their core. These are people-centric organizations, business, and programs, and it doesn't take much research here, either, to see that they are cropping up all over the place. [YES! magazine does a great job of continually highlighting them. Pay attention!!!]
It goes without saying that the back end of these can be as deeply (or more) complex than their "public" counterparts -- especially when they need to do double duty as an "institution" (private schools and colleges are a good example, as are large non-profits) or when their financial needs are so great that they toe the line on profit bearing, and/or engage in commerce (media outlets, cultural institutions, and some non-profits can be suspect here).
But the complexity is simply not enough reason to throw up your hands. If you are unhappy with "the way things are" there are a million ways that you can change not only your own life and your immediate environment, but your locality, your region, your country, and yes (not to sound trite, but) your world. A first step is to stop wasting time complaining and to spend that time wisely, educating yourself on who and what is working to build alternatives that you believe in and think are worthy of support.
I previously referred to this ever growing network of organizations and individuals as a parallel universe because, like this quantum phenomenon, it just so happens that when you switch your gaze to the operating systems at work behind this, other, vast pantheon of alternative systems and institutions, it suddenly seems like the veil has been lifted. It turns our that we don't only live in "the world" as it seems to exist when we speak of government run-institutions and big business/profit-centric models as "the way things are," but rather in a dynamic, fluid net of human interaction and great energy deriving from people truly trying to serve each other and the place(s) in which we live.
Just like you justify buying something you really like, (even if you feel a little guilty) this is the time to not only rationalize but rationally, lovingly, CHOOSE to put your money where your heart is. If not you, who, and if not now, when? For all the flaws of organized religion (and there are many) something that has long been central to expressing faith and piety is the act of tithing, which essentially means giving what you can to support your beliefs. Don't get bogged down, now, in a conversation about the corrupt nature of the church, or separation of church and state -- I'm not suggesting you take up bible studies. But you should, certainly, know that the core of the Judeo-Christian tithe as well as Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam can be seen as the first type of "taxation," and that in its essence the conceptual nature of this is that a responsible person of faith (read here, "in humanity") will do what they can to serve others, to support good works, to enable the spreading of their beliefs.
What do YOU believe in? Are you deeply passionate, even if you don't work in this field, about food? Do you have a transcendent experience at the dinner table, be it yours or someone else's? Maybe food is your religion. Consider getting more educated about programs supporting local and regional agriculture and/or urban gardens, the slow food movement, food access and advocacy for lower income communities, education about food issues for youth, school food campaigns, etc. etc. See where this train of thought leads?
You don't have to be religious to have faith. Faith means you believe, essentially, in the goodness of yourself and other people. Tithing in support of your faith is the way that you make your beliefs operational, within the constraints of our contemporary systems, for which currency is the fuel. So is brain power and man power! Volunteering is a way to tithe your time, if you really don't feel that you could put aside a few dollars a week for the things you believe in.
Just like you, these projects, programs, organizations, and people are often struggling to survive these times. They are more crucial than ever -- often offering the only available access and aid where "public" services fail. These ARE your public services, citizens of the world -- the ones run but your public, your neighbor, your friend. You're unhappy with the privitization of journalism? You don't like what's happening to the newspapers and magazines? There are countless smaller imprints run by committed, passionate people who function with integrity and remind you what journalism can really do. These are often run on a shoestring budget, with many giving pro-bono hours and contributions. Support them, if that's what you want to see. It's that simple.
Remember not to blame your neighbor when your own sidewalk is dirty, you know what I mean? We all walk the streets of these world, and it's only by our own laxity that we don't realize that we, too, pave these streets with our intention, action, and belief.
Step up, comrade, if you're willing to fight. "Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right."
*please take a minute to see how desperately these need your support at current, with budgets being slashed to bits - here's the Brooklyn Public Library situation, but I'm sure you know how to find out how your local is faring. You do know how to google, yes?
I support, among other things, the Brooklyn Public Library, The Fort Greene Compost Project, WQXR/WNYC Public Radio, YES! Magazine, Slow Food USA, The Nation, Evolver, Swarthmore College, and Friends Seminary. And I probably make less than you do.