The Myth of Fingerprints

“There’s no doubt about it, it was the myth of fingerprints.  I’ve seen ’em all and man, they’re all the same” — Paul Simon

This post is not about fingerprints, but it is about a myth.  And that’s the myth that if you work to change the world you ought to suffer for it.

Yesterday, I was out for a 4th of July ride with a random bunch of folks who showed up at the best little bike shop in New Haven, The Devils’ Gear.  

Part-way through the ride, my ears perked up–two riders just ahead of me were discussing a TED Talk that they had seen recently, given by Dan Pallotta.  What made me perk up was that I knew Dan Pallotta.  Not personally.  But in 2002, I rode 550 miles on what turned out to be the final Heartland AIDS Ride, organized by his outfit, Pallotta Teamworks.

The rider who had brought up the talk works for a non-profit in New Haven, and we fell to talking about why both of us felt Pallotta’s model was superior to the “bake sale” approach to solving problems.

Afterward, the more I thought about it, the more a set of ideas seemed to cohere out of my almost-forgotten sociological background.  Here they are, likely in less than ideal order.  I’d be glad to hear from anyone else who has thoughts along these lines.

1.  We value small charity organizations not because they are effective but because they are not.  An effective organization might solve the problem, and that would be bad.

2.  It would be bad because we believe that charity needs to be personal.

3.  We believe charity needs to be personal because charity is, at its base, a way of atoning.

4.  We need to atone because we sinned somehow in our life before this–perhaps we made fun of someone with AIDs.

5.  Atonement implies suffering.

6.  Suffering comes from pushing the same rock up the same hill, time after time after time.

7.  Hence, “charity” is at root not about solving problems.  It is about suffering and atonement.

8.  So anyone associated with any “charity” organization must be (if they are not a huckster planning to benefit personally) a recovering bad person.

9.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Dan Pallotta and Pallotta Teamworks were publicly painted as hucksters who benefited economically from the events they organized.  Because they didn’t suffer and, honestly, they made every possible effort to ensure that event participants didn’t suffer, either.  In 2002, we had hot showers and all we could eat.  It wasn’t a sufferfest, by any means.

But instead of raising $50 or $200 each, over 1,000 rides raised a minimum of $2,500.  Each.  That mean that ride alone raised over $2,500,000.  Let’s assume that fully half of that went for event costs (and some of that to pay Dan and his team).  OK, that leaves more than one million dollars from that ride alone that went to organizations fighting AIDS.  How many $1M contributions were being made to fight AIDS in 2002?  I don’t know.  But I’m willing to bet it wasn’t too many.

How many bake sales clear even $1,000?

There’s no doubt about it, it’s the myth of suffering.


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