Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 299 pages, ISBN 9781433501104.
Under review is the second unrevised edition of The Tragedy of American Compassion originally published in 1992. There is good reason for a second unrevised edition. The circumstances described by Olasky in this history of social work and charity in America as existing in 1992 remain much the same in 2008-10.
The title is derived from a phrase found on page 189 where Olasky writes of a “compassion fatigue” brought on by depersonalization. He identifies governmental bureaucracy in social work as contributing to the breakdown of personal involvement with the homeless and others in need. He quotes a social worker’s comment which appeared on page 17 of a February 8, 1971, Time magazine article: “…the paper work is just amazing … I have yet to solve any social problem.”
The author also noted a semantic shift over time from when compassion meant a personal act with another to a “feeling” requiring “a willingness to send a check” (p. 197). This, too, constituted a tragic breakdown of charity and personal social work in America.
The Tragedy of American Compassion is a chronological social history of compassion and caring in America from colonial times to the present noting the changes from a time of more personal involvement and action to the present situation of de-personalized help. A second stream of narrative in the book is the flow from discussions over who merits special attention as recipients of charity to full-blown arguments and policies over who merits care. The time when discussions turned into arguments was close to 1845. As the country’s urban areas became more populous and industrialized, those arguments got more energized and more developed as philosophical differences over private caring and governmental welfare. It went from “should we not do more” to universal indiscriminate welfare.
The tragedy: The meaning of compassion has shifted from personal acts and involvement to depersonalized “feelings” and willingness to send money.
In chapter six Olasky lists what he identifies as “seven seals of good philanthropic practice.” These included Affiliation, Bonding, Categorization, Discernment, Employment, Freedom and God (page 101). Affiliation refers to family, ethnic ties, and church or synagogue. Bonding refers to the direct contact and personal relationship between volunteer and recipient. Categorization refers to identifying the type of help needed and what is worthy of relief. Discernment refers to the acknowledgment of any lurking deviousness or pretension in a person seeking help. Employment is self-explanatory but with a stipulation of “long-term” work. Freedom refers to the opportunity to work and worship without government restriction. God is the seventh seal on the social covenant of compassion.
It is difficult to show compassion for people you do not know or have any meaningful contact with.