UNICEF and the Saint’s Excuse

Halloween’s editorial in the New York Times sings the praises of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, the initiative born in 1950 to help the  work of UNICEF by having children solicit donations in their All Hallow’s Eve’s journeys, instead of traditional candy. UNICEF, as the Times points out, does important things, and Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF raises millions of dollars annually for the organization’s agenda of saving  children overseas with medicine, food, clean water and vaccinations. Who can complain? Well, I can, and we all should. Good intentions and even good results do not justify coercion and abuse of power, and that is what Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has always represented. Halloween is a tradition of childhood, and charity has nothing to do with it. It is about fun and fantasy, adventure and imagination. It is about conjuring a spooky atmosphere and dressing up in scary or whimsical costumes, ringing strange doorbells and miraculously receiving candy and sweets in return. Redeeming social value? Fond memories have social value. Community rituals and tradition have social value. Halloween is a good thing, for its own sake. According to the Times,  a minister named Clyde Allison and his wife, Mary Emma Allison, created Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF because they wanted to support the  United Nations charity in its efforts to combat child mortality. They also , the Editorial says approvingly, felt that “Halloween was a chance to inspire children to help other children, not just rake in candy.” Translation: they saw a clever way way to get children to work for their admittedly worthwhile adult objectives rather the children’s own trivial, childish ones. Halloween has as much to do with children helping children as Arbor Day does. But having small children, many of whom know nothing about UNICEF, become irresistible door-to-door solicitors for cash within a tradition where it is virtually impossible for the solicited to refuse to give..brilliant! Brilliant, but wrong. The children are shamed into forgoing candy—for their satisfaction—to acquire donations, for the plans and aspirations of adults. Instead of a night of innocent, liberating, childish fun, the children get the pleasure of becoming unpaid fundraisers for UNICEF. Instead of being part of the Halloween ritual, the homeowners find themselves pressured by pint-size shakedowns that are near resistance-proof. Has anyone, confronted with a goblin collecting for UNICEF, mustered the courage to say, “Sorry, I give out candy on Halloween.” Or, “I give to the charity of my choice, thank-you”?  I haven’t. Meanwhile, the adults perpetrating this bait-and switch use rationalizations to justify what is a really an exercise in arm-twisting. “The candy is bad for the kids,” they say. “The kids get more satisfaction from this.” Most of all, they say, “It’s for a good cause”—the classic rationalization known as “The Saint’s Excuse.” It is the self-serving philosophy that principles of ethics can be broken as long as the goal is lofty enough. As examples of  the Saint’s Excuse, the UNICEF caper is pretty mild; after all, it was also the rationalization for the Spanish Inquisition.  Still, children are being coerced to do the job of adults. Their fun is being altered to meet the charitable goals of someone else. And the rules are being changed on the people answering the door, so they virtually have to give. It doesn’t matter if it’s only spare change. It is coercive, unfair and deceptive. Some communities have Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF in addition to Halloween, on the day before or after. I’m still not fond of making kids ring doorbells for charities; I would suggest that the adults go door to door on UNICEF nights, if they are concerned about poor children overseas. Still, at least the two-night formula lets kids enjoy Halloween without being saturated with guilt. They’ll have plenty of time for that. The fact that adults like the saintly Allisons and the editors of the Grey Lady don’t care very much about the values of childhood, which include fantasy and pointless fun, doesn’t make it right. Let adults do their own work, which includes raising money for poor and endangered children. They should let children, in turn, do the job they need to do. Be kids.

6 thoughts on “UNICEF and the Saint’s Excuse

  1. Tyrone: Congratulations!You are the very first commenter! Since there were no comments to read before yours, it was impossible to read a previous comment. But if you look at the article you commented to on the home page, it now says there is one (1) comment. Yours. You can read it now.

    • David: I love UNICEF. It is a wonderful organization. Danny Kaye, one of my performing favorites, was the face of UNICEF for years. I don’t think it is a tentacle of world government—indeed, UNICEF’s virtues or weaknesses are irrelevant to the post, though you seem to have managed to miss that. I don’t care what the charity is, and I don’t care it it could cure cancer and install world peace in one fell swoop. It is wrong to co-opt a kid’s Halloween for adult objectives, and wrong to pull a bait-and-switch on the people who answer the door. Forced charity isn’t charity, it’s robbery with a smile.

      • Ahh….robbery with a smile. I seriously just watched an episode of “Angel” last night titled “Blood Money” in season 2. They staged a charity ball where the theme was that famous celebrities “robbed” the donors of their donations with a smile and a fake gun.

        I’m not sure why that’s important, but I felt like commenting!

  2. “Angel” is one of the all-time highs in TV artistry…smart, satirical, great writing, scary…and about the struggle between Good and Evil, with a hero who is both at once! Plus it has my single favorite final line of any series—even better than “You should wear more sweaters!”

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