The Lesser Evil

The Lesser Evil

Poverty and charity are two evils; charity is the lesser, but it is still evil.


"Change. Not charity" is the motto of Los Angeles’s Liberty Hill Foundation, which provides grants and leadership training for community groups working for equality and justice. At its annual dinner, on May 20, Liberty Hill presented its Upton Sinclair Award to Walter Mosley in honor of his "unwavering idealism and vision." Mosley, author of more than thirty books, is celebrated worldwide for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in inner-city LA after World War II. The best-known is probably Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley spoke at the dinner about "the lesser evil."

My friend, I’ll call him Jack, is getting older.

He has a strong mind and a powerful writer’s voice, but time is moving on and various parts of his body, especially his lungs, have weakened. In the cold, damp New York winters he was suffering bout after bout of bronchitis, sometimes spending the better part of the season in bed.

Jack’s well-educated, very expensive doctor, in brief half-hour visits, prescribed for this recurring ailment ever stronger doses of steroids. Jack asked about the negative effects of the drug and the doctor said, in as many words, this is the lesser of two evils.

Two hundred and twenty-five dollars per half-hour, plus the cost of travel, drugs and future ailments caused by this radical cure, and the healer talks about two evils, becoming a metaphysician rather than a pedestrian GP.

We, Jack and I, have a third friend—Tina. Tina told Jack that there is a man named Tan down in Chinatown who charges $40 a visit and who only prescribes herbs that are to be brewed into bitter-tasting teas.

"Dr. Tan will take your pulse and then prescribe the proper herbs," Tina said.

This was a third position, something outside the Pandora’s Box containing the two evils. Dr. Tan represented the grassroots, literally. Five thousand years of herbal medicine that comes down to one case of twenty-first-century bronchitis in SoHo.

The notion of two evils is broadly accepted in American culture. Most working people are well aware of the rock and the hard place, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We accept the inevitability of a losing trade-off on the long, declining, slippery slope of working-class American life.

Poverty and charity are two evils. The former grinds our bones and souls and children into rubble, while the latter weakens and ultimately eliminates our ability to live lives for ourselves—leaving us dependent upon the kindness of bureaucrats. You know the ones—those people who have your life in a manila folder hanging from wires in a green filing cabinet that sits behind a locked door that you don’t have the key for.

The arbiters of philanthropy and good-will organizations never prepare us for liberation or revolution; they never question their superior position of humility and selflessness or the rightness of their charity.

Charity is the lesser evil, but it is still evil.

The overpaid, overblown doctor kills your kidneys along with the bronchitis, while Dr. Tan seeks only to strengthen your natural defense systems and organic immunities. He may fail sometimes, and so might his patients, but in this case he stopped my friend’s bouts with lung disease.

There is almost always a third and fourth and fifth approach to any predicament—and any one of these methodologies might not be evil. When you find a leader, an activist, a member of the people, who is suffering—a woman or a man who is a part of this world and who demands dignity along with relief—then you have left the realms of poverty and its only slightly less evil sibling, charity.

The Liberty Hill Foundation echoes these opinions of mine in its decision to support activists, organizers and resisters of all kinds. You are here to strengthen the immune systems of those who are straining under the weight of rampant capitalism and its tax-free, big-name charitable foundations; its misguided acolytes who aggrandize themselves by throwing money at people who are ultimately transformed into bondsmen under the domination of this lesser evil.

I thank you for giving me this Upton Sinclair Award and for the opportunity to chastise the false hierarchy of most charitable organizations while being able to laud the proponents of liberation and, possibly, even revolution.

Thank you.

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