Author and New York Times cultural writer Julie Salamon discusses generosity and charity.
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GUEST: Julie Salamon
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the title I’ve used for today’s program, “it is necessary to give” actually comes from a slim new Workman Publishing book about the Ladder of Charity created nearly a thousand years ago by Maimonides, the great Hebrew philosopher and physician known to scholars a “Rambam”.
The books’ full new title is “Ramban’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary To Give”. Originally we were told that it is “more necessary to know how to give”. And just why it is more necessary to know how was the first question I wanted to put to today’s guest, Julie Salamon, the best selling author and New York Times Cultural writer. I still shall.
But I should note, of course, as I have when she has been here on the Open Mind before that I first came to know my guest in what I now call my Hollywood years, during part of which she served so brilliantly as the Wall Street Journal’s film critic, even at times taking out after me in my role then as Chair of the movie rating system.
It was later that Julie Salamon wrote her superb, The Devil’s Candy, which Newsweek called “as close to a definitive portrait of the madness of big time movie making as we’re likely to get.” And when she wrote Facing The Wind, A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation, her compelling account of another kind of madness, a book so wonderfully readable I insisted then that the pen with which she wrote it, simply must have been made of a quill from an angel’s wing.
But now I come back to that original question for Julie … why did she first write in her book about Maimonides and what has come to be known as “Rambam’s Ladder” … it is necessary to give; it is more necessary to know how.” Why, Julie?
SALAMON: It’s a very good question. I think more necessary to know how because I think when you say, “It is necessary to give,” it sounds preachy and moralistic and “you better do this”, and people think they know what you’re saying. I think “more necessary to know how” is what the book is about. It’s a meditation on giving. And what I found in the course of doing this exploration of modern giving, balanced against the ancient wisdom of Rambam, or Maimonides was that, giving is an exchange, it’s not a one-way street, it’s not a, it’s not an upward to downward transaction. And so when I say, “it’s more necessary to know how … I think for me, at least, the thought process behind giving is as important as the act itself.
HEFFNER:But you start by saying, “otherwise it sounds ‘preach-y’” …isn’t it? Really?
SALAMON: Did you find it preach-y, I think?
HEFFNER: I didn’t find you preach-y, but the notion that it is necessary to give … why? Where is it written … well, you’re going to tell me …
SALAMON: Well I should have said ‘I find it necessary to give”. And when I way “give” I don’t necessarily mean handing a dollar bill to somebody on the street. Maybe that’s not the right way to give, but I do find that it’s necessary to give of one’s self, if you want to be a full human being. And there are all kinds of ways of doing that. And I think what I found out in the course of doing my research for this book, was that it clarified for me, I think, a lot of the outlook … my outlook on the world, which certainly doesn’t come from a Pollyanna point of view, but from quite the opposite.
And I think that for me giving is observing, it’s keeping your eyes open, it’s being willing to see what’s out there. And a lot of what’s out there is very unpleasant. And, and I think it’s easy to seal yourself up and say, “I don’t need to give”, but I think it is necessary to give, but before you can give, you have to see who you’re giving to.
HEFFNER: Tell me about that unpleasantness that you see out there. I mean you’ve spent a good deal of time now talking with, researching the matter of people who give. Was there something unpleasant about them? About that?
SALAMON: The people who give I found very pleasant. In fact, very interesting. I think a lot of the problems that they were trying to address, and my research included receivers as well as givers, I walk outside of my apartment in Soho, which is a nice part of the city … certainly we pay exorbitant prices to live there.
And within five minutes of walking around I’ll encounter a few homeless people, routinely … especially since September 11th. I, I find that more than unpleasant, I find it … I can’t even say shocking because some people … people are on the streets for all kinds of reasons. But I find it disturbing, it makes it un … I’m not able to walk to my corner grocery store completely feeling placid and smug about the fact that I have a nice apartment in Soho and I can walk to the grocery store and buy what I need. Along the way I’ll encounter somebody who lives in a very different set of circumstances than I do. Even though we’re on the same block, we’re sharing the same pavement for a brief period of time.
HEFFNER: Those circumstances in which she or he lives … self-induced?
SALAMON: Sometimes. But what does that mean? You know, are my circumstances self-induced. No, I feel I was privileged to an extent … not so much privilege of money, but privilege of loving parents, who themselves have gone through difficult times in their lives. You know, it’s always …you know take aback many, many steps. And I think that giving isn’t just giving, you know, it’s like raising children. You don’t just give …you give with thought. And I think that’s really … what in interviewing the people for the book, what I was most impressed was the thought process that people went through on their way to giving.
HEFFNER: How do they relate to Rambam’s Ladder?
SALAMON: Well, most of them were very interesting. Most of them didn’t know anything about it. You know I didn’t know much about it myself when I started on this expedition. But, you know, I’d talked to some of the wealthiest people in New York City and talked to them about … one of my interview subjects, Tom Murphy, who I love … his … you know is the head of Capital Cities which owned ABC for many years … he didn’t know who Maimonides was when I started the interview process, but then by the end, he kept going … “And I think this Maimonides fellow …
SALAMON: … would feel good about this. [Laughter] And I loved that and after that I started thinking of Rambam as “this Maimonides fellow”. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about that for a moment … “this Maimonides fellow”. How closely related is the Ladder to things Hebraic?
SALAMON: Well, if you take it in it’s literal form and in the book there’s going to be a literal translation of the original … the original Ladder wasn’t even a Ladder, it was called “the eight levels of giving”, and over time it became called popularly, “The Ladder of Charity.” And it’s Hebraic in the original text in that Maimonides refers to “an Israelite should do this, or an Israelite should do that.” But I think if we strip away that specificity, it becomes very generalized.
The lowest level of the Ladder is the person who gives begrudgingly. I call it “the reluctant giver.” At the highest level of the Ladder is the person who gives somebody a loan so they won’t need to beg anymore. And I think a lot of … it’s sort of interesting because the Ladder sort of spans all kinds of political doctrines. You certainly a very conservative person applauds the highest level of giving because it rewards self-sufficiency. But along the way as a kind of compassion … Maimonides says you shouldn’t examine who …you should be willing to be ripped off … it’s better to be ripped off and give to somebody who may not be needy than to not give at all.
HEFFNER: You had a, an odyssey that you described in your book. Ranging from a concern about being ripped off to something very, very different.
SALAMON: Right. My friend, David.
SALAMON: Well, David is this … is one of the homeless men in my neighborhood, who I like. I mean it’s terrible … you know, and I have to say that in addition to being a writer, in my spare time I’m the Chairman of the Board of the Bowery Residents Committee, it’s a volunteer position and the Bowery Residents Committee is a homeless organization in New York and the motto of the BRC is very much the top level of the Ladder of Maimonides, which is “teach self-sufficiency”. And all over the agency and the brochures it says “never give a handout to somebody on the street” because you’re helping keeping them on the street. And I’m the Chairman of this organization.
HEFFNER: But you gave …
SALAMON: … but I gave … yes, I did … I did … I gave him … I still do occasionally … I’m ashamed to admit it to you, but every once in a while and I do it completely irrationally and illogically. I may like somebody who’s … I may like their face, so I’ll give it to them. I may have had something, either very good or very bad happen to me that day, and so either to reward myself or to somehow make good karma for myself, I’ll give money.
And this is not the best way to do it, it’s irrational, it’s illogical and part of … that’s why I say I don’t think the book’s “preach-y”. I’m not saying “I’m the great Swami with all the answers”. I’m somebody who’s seeking some rational explanation, or irrational explanation …
HEFFNER: I wondered why it needed to be rational …
SALAMON: Right. It’s probably not a rational explanation for my behavior. And with David when I first started encountering him, I wouldn’t give him money. I would give him a card that said “This is the BRC …
HEFFNER: Go get a job.
SALAMON: No. “Here’s the BRC, go there. You can check yourself in … and he knew that if he went there that one of the things that the agency would ask from him is go into a detox program, or at least listen to a counselor or something like that. And, you know, he’d always take the card and politely say, “thank you”. And he was always very nice about it. He’d always say “thank you” as though I’d given him money.
And then eventually what happened was one day it was a miserable day and I, I was in a mood, and so I took him into the store and bought him a sandwich. And a, and a … a meal. I bought him a whole meal. And after that we had this very on-going relationship, where now I had changed the nature of the relationship. I’d actually given him something and then one day I just, you know, I can’t even remember the exact reason, I gave him $5.00. And then sometimes I would cross the street to avoid him because I didn’t want to face the dilemma. And then I’d think, “why am I doing this? I can afford the $5.00?”
And it was an on-going … I won’t give it away … but throughout the book the relationship developed, or didn’t develop. But one of the things that he did for me, is he became a sort of a touchstone for me. So on the one end I had Maimonides, the great theologian, philosopher, rabbi from the 12th century and on the other hand I had David, my neighborhood homeless guy. And I learned a lot from both of them.
HEFFNER: You know I was fascinated in reading about David, and reading about your instinct which I’m sure you share, with, with … I should put it the other way, “that most of us share with you”, is thinking back to Andrew Carnegie and when I was doing my A Documentary History of the United States I put in this essay he wrote on wealth. And I wondered what you thought about …would think about this.
He writes, “one of …” and this is in the late 19th century … “one of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity. It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy. Of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent, so spent indeed as to produce the very evils which it proposes to mitigate or cure.”
And then, this is the greatest passage in this book. “A well known writer of philosophic books admitted the other day that he had given a quarter of a dollar to a man who approached him as he was coming to visit the house of his friend, he knew nothing of the habits of this beggar, knew not the use that would be made of this money, although he had every reason to suspect that it would be spent improperly. This man professed to be a disciple of Herbert Spenser, yet the quarter dollar given that night will probably work more injury than all the money which its thoughtless donor will ever be able to give in true charity will do good.” Do you subscribe to that …kind of dog eat dog, don’t interfere with natural selection philosophy?
SALAMON: Ah. No.
SALAMON: But I, I do understand what he’s saying and I think that, you know, in my heart of hearts I do agree with the philosophy of the BRC, which I guess in some ways is Carnegie’s philosophy. Except the difference is … at the BRC … you don’t … or, or similar … I’m not saying this is as an advertisement … similar kinds of organizations, the idea is to try and pull people in and help them.
But the real question is, what is wisely and what is unwisely? And that becomes a very interesting question and one that I had to come to grips with because what I think is wisely is, I give my dollar to David and he buys a banana and eats it. Or saves it for rent. Or whatever. His idea of wisely may be something else. I don’t what. It might be to go have a beer, or it might be to hang out and play pinball. I mean I don’t know how he wants to spend it. But the question is … am I in the position to, to judge him in that way and that, I’m not sure.
HEFFNER: Well, when you say “I’m not sure” … you beat me to the punch, I want to ask you, “what’s the answer to the question?”
SALAMON: Well, the answer to the question is, I mean I think that certainly I have a belief that there is a way to live your life. I mean I don’t live on the street and I certainly wouldn’t encourage my children to do it. I don’t think … I think that there’s probably a better way to live. And I’ve seen this man many times seem quite unhappy when it’s too hot or too cold or raining. It seems as though he would rather be some place else. And he’s a bright guy. He may have …he may … I think he also has other kinds of mental problems, but he’s … he’s articulate, he’s friendly, he sweet looking and he’s somebody who, you look at him and you think, why, why doesn’t he have a job?
You know, this man seems like somebody who could have a job. And so what I, what I feel is, is that whether, whether or not I give him money, whether or not he ends up going to the BRC, going through all the programs, ending up emerging at the other end, as very few people will do in his situation, almost doesn’t matter. For me what matters is that I haven’t walked by him. And for me to just give him a dollar and look the other way is, is also … that’s why it’s necessary how to give.
But what’s happened is he has now become a person to me. So when I walk by him, I can’t just say, “oh, I’ve given him my dollar, I’m taken care of for the day,” or “I’m not giving him the money, he’s a bum, he deserves what he gets.” What I’ve done is I’ve engaged in a transaction with him and that transaction makes me think about the society I live in. It makes me think about Andrew Carnegie … is this the … you know, what is the right way to handle these issues, and it makes me think that there are all kinds of social issues and social policies that arise from that single little encounter on the street that I now have … that I can’t ignore.
I have become, because of David and because of the thought process that follows and our giving exchange … I think a more responsible citizen.
HEFFNER: And what is that, when you say “more responsible citizen”, somehow or other, Julie, as I read your book, I came to think, “my God, Julie Salamon, is what I would have called in my youth, a “social democrat”; she is surfacing here and maybe this has done this to her and maybe she’s always been this, you’re talking about a social conscience. You say here, and I couldn’t help but take note of it, you say, “Maimonides had in mind … what he had in mind was something larger than transference of wealth; something more important than social engineering, he was aiming for something more ephemeral; nothing less than the achievement of a just world. That’s what you’re talking about.
SALAMON: That’s right.
HEFFNER: This, this “tough love” that you’re … tough charity that you’re involved in, really is a, is you’re waving a banner for a just world. And I love you for it. How does it fit in to contemporary charity? Contemporary giving. Because you’re, you’re pretty tough here, you, you raise a question, and I wanted to ask you whether you’d already given an answer to it … you talk about a Land’s End catalogue … you, you make the point that so much of this begins for you, with 9/11 …
HEFFNER: With everything that happened then. And the need to reach out to others who were suffering so … and you write here about a Land’s End catalogue which salutes children who have done good works and promises to donate $5,000 to each of their causes. “Is the worthiness lessened by the fact that these born-heroes are also promotional ploys for Land’s End products which occupy all but the first couple of pages of the catalogue.” Then your, your “zowie” question … “and is there anything wrong with turning given into part of the search for profit?” I don’t know that I know your answer to that question.
SALAMON: because I don’t know if I know my answer either. And I think that it’s … I think because it’s probably a multi-layered answer. We live in a complicated world, there can’t be “an answer”, I wish there could. And then I’d be a preacher. If I had one answer, I’d be a preacher. I guess I’m a mini-philosopher. I find many answers. Or many questions. And it’s a question I’ve asked myself. You know, on my Board, or on any Board of any organization you tend to have a lot of people who work for … I work for a large corporation, I work for The New York Times. This is not a “mom and pop” …
SALAMON: … store. And one of the things I like about working for my big corporation, they have the New York Times Foundation. I write a check to my children’s school, which is a public school and because it falls into the requirements of the Times, I can get a match. So I double … well how is the Times able to do that? They’re able to do it because they’re a profitable … knock on wood … corporation because they pay my salary. So it’s not simple. So I like them to be a profitable organization because otherwise I don’t get my salary, I don’t get the match for the charity and so this is part of the world we live in.
The question that I think … I think the question that lies underneath that question is … it goes back to my dilemma with David on the street. Am I just accepting this … accepting this corporate way of doing charity today as an end unto itself. I write my check, the check goes here … it’s very depersonalized. And I think what I … I think the people who I talked to in the course of doing the book, the people for whom giving becomes really a two-way street and an enhancement of their life and a step towards the achievement of a just world in a really broad cosmic sense is that they’ve become engaged in a process in some ways and I think at the highest level … the process of giving can become an enrichment, not just to the person to whom you’re giving. But to yourself. You talk to anybody who becomes deeply involved in some kind of charitable activity and, in a way, it’s sort of sickening, they’re so beatific.
But in a way, I think what they’re saying is true … this is a chance for them to step outside of their rush-rush-rush-cell phone crazy existence that we live, which if you think about it, is insane … that when I enter this studio I’m asked “do you have beeper, cell phones” … you know lyou have to turn yourself off like, like an appliance. And I think that what, what, what if you stop and you think about … “am I just writing this check”, then that, to me, isn’t even giving. That’s like a … that’s like a tax … that’s a safety tax. I’m writing this check just in case there is a God, there is heaven, I’m … I’m writing a check to reserve this space here. And what I’m saying is “I don’t think you can do it that way”.
HEFFNER: You don’t think we can do it that way.
SALAMON: I don’t.
HEFFNER: Do you think that most people do?
SALAMON: I can’t speak for … I can’t speak for most people.
HEFFNER: From what you have seen … in writing this book …
SALAMON: From what I have seen, I think, I think more people have that engagement in one way or another than we give them credit for. And one of my … one of the most interesting … I can’t even say sets of interviews because a lot of it was from research, there were these researches at Boston College … who I loved …who did this whole set of research looking at philanthropy and charity, but way expanding the definition of what it was … to helping out a sick friend, to doing something for your family member. They took in sort of actions that … you know that weren’t necessarily to poor people or people who have less, or to cancer research, or to the sort of usual things you think about. But just the way that a human being gets off the treadmill for a minute and says, you know part of my connection in life is my friend’s laid up, I’m going to just … at lunch hour … go over and visit her today. And when they took in those kinds of transactions, all of a sudden people became much more charitable, much more … maybe not charitable, but much more …
SALAMON: … giving and generous. And so I guess I’m not as … I’m both very cynical and very not cynical. I mean one of things, you know my mother used to say this …and it drove me crazy when I was a kid … that if you go in a store and you smile at somebody and talk to them, they will smile and talk to you back. And it used to embarrass me and I used to think “oh, my mother! … she started conversations with strangers, what’s wrong with her?”.
But you know what, I do it now and I’ve done it a lot more since I started working on this book. And people … if you look at people in the eye and actually see who they are, they will look back at you. And I’m not saying some fake, you know, “have a nice day” kind of thing, but actually looking at them.
HEFFNER: But you don’t want to dismiss the “have a nice day” thing.
SALAMON: Not at all. I’d rather have them say that then … I can’t even say it on camera, what people might say to you sometimes. It’s more pleasant. So there’s the pleasantness which is one thing, but then there’s something else which is .. I think that going through this investigation for me has, has sort of made me step back and look at all the different aspects of my life.
HEFFNER: Julie, it began for you with 9/11.
SALAMON: That’s right.
HEFFNER: Where you say so much of it began. What’s happened since then to that feeling that permeated your life at that time and your neighborhood?
SALAMON: Well, my neighborhood is still suffering to a certain extent from 9/11, financially.
HEFFNER: Because you were so close.
SALAMON: Because we were so close. We’re really two neighborhoods away from the World Trade Center. But I think, I think what that was for a lot of people was a real jolt. That I, I … certainly in New York … you know people talk with wonder about the outpouring of giving. But the truth is I wasn’t that surprised by it because I do think that, you know, it’s rare in an emergency situation for people not to stop, for people not, you know, there’s that famous story from the sixties of the woman screaming and nobody paying any attention. But the truth is far more often, if you see a car wreck, or something … people actually stop. Now they all have cell phones and they all stop and, you know, 911 must be flooded with calls.
HEFFNER: Julie, you encourage me and I’m glad that I know now that you stand on the top of Rambam’s Ladder. Thanks so much for joining me today for this discussion.
SALAMON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: I appreciate it. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.