The super and sub human

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July 15, 2011

As a point of clarification I wrote this post before I realized that fellow CM blogger Paul Loewen is the son of Arvid Loewen (see below post).  So I welcome any clarifications that may be helpful in this piece.

So if you are interested in pondering the absurd then have a look at what a local 54 year old grandfather just accomplished.  A few highlights;

1. Cycled 6,055 km in 13 days, nine hours and change.  This stands as the fastest coast-to-coast cycling across Canada.

2. Breaking this record included an injury part way through (which required a 15 hr break!).

3. His pace demanded cycling a minimum of 20 hours a day.

These facts do not compute in my brain.  Through the medium of long distance cycling Arvid has raised over 1.5 million dollars.  His charity of choice is an organization that works with street kids in Kenya.  So why I am about to transition to some critical comments related to this story?  First a couple of qualifications.  No criticism is intended towards Arvid.  The fact that he found an expression that allows him to generate this type of support for what I will assume is a great cause can only be commended.  I also assume that other perspectives than the following could be taken (such the need of extreme behaviour to draw attention to extreme situations),  I want, however, to take a step back and ask one question and make one observation.

Why can herculean feats raise this type of money?  Is there not something bizzare or even perverse about the need for someone to perform at super-human levels to draw funds for those living in sub-human conditions?  I will go out on an unsubstantiated limb and venture a guess in saying that the vast majority of Arvid's support comes from the corporate sector in which donors can only 'win' from their association with ArvidArvid becomes the super-hero logo on their chest which invigorates the public imagination.  While Arvid remains out of the average person's reach the corporation gives the public access to this imagination by acquiring their brand while also associating the average person with helping 'the poor' (this is the power of the corporation not Arvid) on the other side of the world.  This leads to my observation;

The owners of Palliser Furniture in Winnipeg created some 'incentive' for Arvid saying that if he broke the record they would present him with a check for $50,000 at the finish line.  Now I will also venture a guess in saying that Palliser would have donated the money regardless.  However, the scenario again focuses on some implicit value in this herculean accomplishment.  The money is not worth donating directly to street kids in Kenya, that is, bringing the conditions of a group of people's life up to a minimally acceptable level.  Or to put it another way, the money is not worth donating to someone who simply demonstrates the need and effectiveness of the situation and organization represented.  Instead the money is worth wagering on the possibility of achieving the never before achieved.  When given the choice between bringing others up to a minimum level on the one hand or extending our reach beyond the maximum the choice is clear (though we are supposed to believe that the two work together).

To again be clear.  I have nothing but respect for Arvid's accomplishments.  To have inspiring figures in various fields and expressions is part of the beauty of human nature.  What I am drawing attention to is the structure around extreme expressions like Arvid's.  The amount of global economic resources that could be available from the world's most wealthy is staggering.  And yet it is the folks without such resources that are required to enter the super-human before investors find enough 'value' to throw their tax-deductible donations at so they can still receive a return on investment.

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Thanks for your comments on the ride. Ironic, yes. I agree that it is interesting that humans are attracted to the extreme. It seems to apply to many arenas of life, however. In a world where Youtube has dumbed us down to the sensational, I sometimes find it remarkable that the world can be captivated by a story.

To be completely fair to Frank DeFehr, he has continually been involved at MCF (having traveled there himself), gave (a lot of) money other than the $50,000, would probably have donated this cheque regardless of finishing time, was asked by my Dad to do this (creates media attention), and, ironically (considering your point), literally had to be dragged into the limelight to even present the cheque. That was not his intention. He would have left it anonymous if he could have.

On another note, there are a lot of humans that want to make a difference in the sub-human standards of living. There are also thousands of charitable organizations that are CRYING out for money and attention. A lot of them are good. A lot of them are not. What my Dad is doing forces people like the DeFehrs to say, "If this guy is willing to work so hard, do so much, then this charity must stand out." And they're right. It does. Head and shoulders above many others in its approach and success. When someone calls to ask me if I'm willing to give them a donation, a good question to ask is, "Are you getting paid to do this?"

One of the only reasons my Dad is successful at asking for money is because they say, "Are you getting paid to do this?" And he answers:
"I quit my job as an executive."
"I am drawing no salary but am living off my RRSPs."
"I am willing to bike across the country at record pace to show you my commitment to these kids."

That's why he does it, and that's why people care.

I totally agree that sometimes it's remarkable what it takes to get people's attention - I'm one of them - I ignore the charity pictures, too. But I don't think you gave the donors a fair hearing.

Thanks for some insider info. I guess what is beginning to press on me more and more is the question of whether the extremes in this example (super human fighting for against sub human [standards]) may actually continue to enforce a structure that profits from these conditions. It is a wondering about our association with something 'heroic' or 'herculean' (while not asking any substantial change in the realm of the 'normal') that I am still a little confused by.
Also, why is it a negative qualifier that someone gets paid for raising support and awareness for a cause?

I understand what you're saying, but would perhaps like a better explanation of just how these super-human events enforce a structure that profits from the sub-human conditions. If you continue to read the explanation of my Dad's bike ride, the title encourages Grandpas (and others, too) to make a difference in the world. It's exactly about breaking down the activities that perpetuate these structures. Side note: structural violence is something I am remarkably opposed to and a topic that intrigues me. At MCF, Charles Mulli is re-integrating these kids into Kenyan society. It is not a dump-hole for money just to provide food. Former street kids are now politicians, doctors, teachers, engineers, pilots, etc. And they are re-contributing to society.

It's not a negative qualifier per se, but it's a positive qualifier. People will always say, "This is a great organization" if they're being paid to say it. Instead, it's a positive qualifier if they are not being paid. That was my point. And when an organization pays someone to fundraiser, usually their overhead increases to the point that 20%-80% for office costs is skimmed off donations.

The point and question is simply about shifting a lens onto structure. And so, again, while the charity may be of the best that could be hoped for the question is of its existence within a now unescapable global economy in which the corporations (or individuals for that matter) that receive a tax break for donations may actually be promoting a structure which their donations would want to undermine. My belief is that as soon as these corporations or structures gained any hint that something substantial might actually change as the result of their donations they would immediately dry up.
I confess that this is a line of thinking that I am exploring and do not claim to be an expert in. This is a wondering of the extent to which these scenarios help to absolve and clean the hands of westerners with a cause (that is excellent) but does not demand actual structural change in our part of the world (and this is my point, not whether the work of Arvid or the charity are good). I will also acknowledge that all sorts of approaches are helpful. What concerns me is the lack of conversation about the larger structure. One theorist has, I think rightly, said that is easier for us in the West to imagine the end of the world (think of the glut of apocalyptic movies) then it is to think of the end of capitalism. And this is the sort of thinking that may well be required.

Thank you for explaining that again. It's a lot clearer this time. I totally agree with you on the fact that the structures of this world need to be torn down and re-built. IF (and that's a massive IF) this were to start today from massive corporations, it would take a lot of time. At the same time, we would need to be doing what MCF (and other great organizations like it) are doing. I'd call it a two-pronged attack. Unfortunately, many people are willing to give money for the "fix" prong, but not the "replace" prong. We like our comfort too much.

I, too, have been doing a lot of "structural thinking" lately. I feel like, in many ways, this is one of the areas God has called me to.

Not sure about Palliser's bill of ethical health. My Dad was an employee there for 30+ years, and I think he respects what they do. Certainly better than the blue and yellow Swedish beast, as well as Walmart.

Unfortunately, "better" isn't what God wants.

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