By Daniel A. Kaufman
With Spring Break rapidly approaching, I asked my students what their plans were, after telling them that my wife, daughter, and I are going to Miami Beach.
Apparently, there are no traditional Spring-Breakers among my students this year, though a number of them are going on “mission trips,” with their churches. What these typically involve is traveling to an underdeveloped country, where one engages in some sort of public works project and evangelizes and proselytizes to the local population, the heavy-handedness of which seems to vary, depending on the denomination.
In truth, my students’ replies were not at all surprising – I ask them this question every year, and I can’t remember the last time someone answered with “Daytona beach” or “Panama City” – but they irritated me nonetheless, as they did last year. Yes, yes…I know…why do I keep asking? Am I trying to aggravate myself? Perhaps. But, this year, I am determined to get to the bottom of it. Not why they keep going on these mission trips – I know the answer to that – but why their doing so bothers me so damned much.
At the simplest level, it’s just plain unnatural for a nineteen or twenty year-old to want to spend his or her vacation in some disease-ridden shantytown, wading through garbage and contaminated water, rather than at a beach resort, partying with other nineteen and twenty year-olds. This is the age to be self-indulgent; to act out; strut your stuff; drink; chase girls or boys; you know, act like a fucking young person. Not only will you have plenty of time – decades upon decades – to be square and sober and responsible and to do good works, but this time – which is very short, ten years at most – will never come back. You will never be this young, this beautiful, or this much fun again.
What the hell has happened to the young libido? It’s bad enough that my students come to class in their pajamas, looking like homeless people, with no apparent desire to attract anyone, but their behavior is even less enticing. At the fringes, it’s activists yelling about “rape culture” and the like, which is enough to sour any good evening, but even among those who are entirely within the mainstream, there is a strange aversion to physical engagement and contact. I sometimes get to class a few minutes early and find my students sitting in the room, in the dark, in complete silence. Young guys sitting next to young girls, completely ignoring one another, while hunched over their phones. And no, I’m not talking about a handful of nerds, here and there – a few gangly kids playing hand-held video games – it’s freaking everyone. (1)
Even the teens and tweens act like a bunch of old people. When we (early Gen Xers) were that age, we were essentially glands and hormones on legs, chasing each other left and right, and it was everything our parents could do to rein us in, even a little bit, but things have gotten so weird in the last decade or so that the situation is now reversed, and I find myself begging my daughter and our friends’ kids to date, flirt a little, check someone out, do something in pursuit of the opposite sex (or the same one, if that’s your thing). It’s no wonder that by the time they get to college they’ve become such asexual lumps. They haven’t gone off the boil…they never got on it. (2) Indeed, this has become such a problem in Japan that it is a matter of significant public concern (3) and may require governmental action of some kind – I can’t wait to see what that’s like – and in Denmark, public anxiety over young peoples’ shriveled libidos has gotten so bad that it has inspired the launching of a bizarre advertising campaign, called “Do it for Denmark,”in which a parade of senior citizens beg young people to screw more. (4)
There is something else that I dislike about these mission trips and what they represent, and it’s this: they are part of a constant drumbeat for charitable activity, to be performed at ever younger ages. Elementary and Middle School kids are being saddled with a sense of responsibility for feeding the poor, housing the homeless, curing cancer and the like. Students in the academically accelerated program, in the high school where my wife teaches – and where my daughter will start as a Freshman next year – are required to put in literally hundreds of hours of “public service,” before they graduate, as a condition for staying in the program. I hear kids of every age talk about “giving back,” despite the fact that they are too young to have gotten anything of the sort for which “giving back” is even a remotely appropriate reaction. So incongruous do I find this wave of kiddie social justice that in my darker moods, I wonder whether the whole thing isn’t some horrible conspiracy, hatched up by old, embittered Yippies to turn late-Millennials into a generation of insufferable goody-goodies. Regardless, it is an unwholesome development – one that burdens children and adolescents with feelings of obligation and duty on a massive scale, even though they are denied the prerogatives and freedoms necessary to act on them in any substantial way, resulting in little more than moral make-work that succeeds in being simultaneously busy and petty. A ten year-old is obligated to play nicely with others, go to school, listen to his teachers, do his homework, and not hit people. He is not obligated to Race for a Cure! or march for civil rights.
Cultural Invasion and Quid Pro Quo Charity
The kiddie social justice phenomenon is ubiquitous these days, and you’re as likely to find secular kids saddled with charity work as the religious. The “mission trip,” however, is a distinctively religious phenomenon with its own distinctive faults. I’ll close with two of the worst:
(a) To try and convince others to abandon their religious identities is an inherently hostile act and involves at least tacit contempt for the other person’s heritage. The only reason to try and convert someone, after all, is because one believes the other’s religion to be defective in some way, an ungenerous attitude in itself. To target poor, vulnerable people, who may practice indigenous, native religions, which are often ancient and at risk of extinction, only makes the practice more abhorrent, and the tactics employed by missionaries are often highly sophisticated, involving misrepresentation, deception, and soft coercion, as well as taking advantage of their targets’ weaknesses. (5) The religious cultures of the world are human treasures. Efforts to erase or absorb them, consequently, cannot be anything but objectionable in the extreme.
(b) Charity with strings attached is no charity at all, which is what is so offensive about organizations like the Salvation Army, in which tzedakah is treated as a kind of quid pro quo (where food and shelter are traded for prayer and religious instruction), which is particularly despicable, given just how helpless many of the recipients are. Mission trips involve precisely the same kind of structurally repugnant relationship with the poor and needy in foreign lands, although, the degree to which they are objectionable in this way depends upon the amount and the coerciveness of the evangelizing involved.
While the quid pro quo aspect of missionizing and evangelizing are their most repugnant features, they also involve smaller violations of the fundamental principles of charity, such as shaming the recipients – see my previous point, regarding the attitudes and postures involved in missionizing – and engendering a sense of indebtedness that ratchets up the pressure to convert. Indeed, so confused are these missionaries as to what charity actually consists of that one wishes that they would all be required to read Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Charity” in the Mishneh Torah, which might help clear things up a bit. (6)
4. Do it for Denmark (1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrO3TfJc9Qw
Do it for Denmark (2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B00grl3K01g
6. Maimonides on the Eight Levels of Charity