During a cold winter I had just finished playing dodge ball at recess. With my bulky corduroy coat still on, I rushed inside the classroom, sat down at my desk and prepared to listen to my second grade teacher Miss Sue explain who was going to get what roles in K.R. Smith Elementary’s annual Christmas Pageant. Students were still settling in their seats, taking off their damp scarves, their knit caps and their gloves while I sat snugly wrapped in my coat. My coat had one of those bad zippers that kept getting caught on the fabric and I was content with leaving the coat on and not having to deal with the anxiety of struggling with the zipper in front of my fellow students. As I contemplated my warmth and wellbeing, I noticed Donald Beagle, an oversized bovine blond-haired kid, was looking at me with a look of consternation. He stood up from his desk, approached me, bent forward in a solicitous manner and politely whispered a warning: Keeping my coat on inside a heated classroom after playing outside would do something harmful to my internal body temperature making me at risk for catching the flu, rheumatic fever, or perhaps even pneumonia. Immediately, I suspected he was passing along some lame misinformation he had received from his idiotic parents, who no doubt relied on fear tactics to manipulate their children. But the pity I had for Donald compelled me to thank him for his misguided counsel and to take off my coat. I did not want to hurt his feelings or burst his illusion that he was the possessor of invaluable health tips, which quite possibly could save a classmate’s life. After all, Donald Beagle was somewhat of a homely sad sack and it seemed his delusion that he was aiding his fellow students with bogus medical warnings was perhaps one of the few things that gave his dismal life any savor.
However, my pity for him turned to contempt a day later when I saw him saying the same thing to Tina Lambart and then the following week to Joe Skyles. These poor kids look terrified upon hearing that keeping their coats on in the heated classroom could possibly result in their deaths. It was then that I saw Donald Beagle for what he was, a particular type of know-it-all, the do-gooder, a needy soul groveling for attention under the veil of spreading valuable advice or performing good works, charity, and advocacy. I would later learn that Donald Beagle belonged to the most benign category of do-gooders, the lonely attention-getter who imposes all sorts of dubious advice on others in order that he may enjoy the high regard of an authority figure or expert. On the danger scale, this relatively harmless do-gooder sits at the bottom. There are far more malignant types of do-gooders who impose their “expertise” on the rest of the world.
One notch above the needy attention-getter in menace is the do-gooder who suffers from a protracted adolescence. His stagnation results from a variety of maladies, not the least of which are his laziness, his lack of talent, and his general incompetence. Desperate for change, this do-gooder resorts to re-inventing himself as a sort of shrill do-gooder rebel. He typically comes from an upper class background and feeling guilty for his excessive privileges he attempts to join some countercultural movement from which he can rail against his parents for belonging to a system that bestows upon them luxuries at the expense of exploiting the less fortunate. In truth, this frustrated adolescent scapegoats his parents for his own failing to define his identity and to mature into a productive citizen. His failing of course is his own. Spoiled, lacking initiative and without purpose, the privileged brat is too narcissistic to take responsibility for his own weaknesses so he relies on creating an imperious do-gooder mask from which he will taut his alleged moral superiority over others.
A young man whom we’ll call Prescott provides a striking case study. Coming from old money in Santa Barbara, Prescott attended college in a small, relatively obscure central California town in order to conceal his wealthy background to his fellow students. He left the brand new Mercedes his father had bought him as a high school graduation gift back home and drove a rusted Volkswagen Beetle to the small town in order to conceal his identity. He grew hobo dreads, a straggly beard and wore tattered clothing. He did not bathe. He sought out the “oppressed,” working in migrant farms and living among the homeless. After two weeks of self-induced squalor, where he lived in a homeless shelter and slept on a thousand-dollar “posturepedic” mattress his mother had purchased for him, he felt he had suffered enough and returned to his apartment a new man, ready to take on the world as an angry outspoken member of the oppressed class. His self-proclaimed status as a member of the “downtrodden” became his excuse for his lack of popularity. It explained why people would stop calling him a few weeks after meeting him. It explained why he always got low grades on his college essays. In truth, his essays earned failing grades because they were incoherent rants. People avoided him because he had few real social skills, he had poor hygiene, he often smelled badly and he was rude and insulting, believing that people deserved to hear his blunt social critiques directly and should react positively to his derogatory stabs as if they were salient epiphanies.
Soon Prescott became infuriated that he wasn’t excelling in school, he dropped out of college and persuaded his parents to give him enough money to travel through Europe where he changed his name to Vandal, joined a German electronic band and performed “protest songs.” The band broke up soon enough, with the socially-conscious young men fighting over a couple of groupies, and Vandal, as he now insisted on being called, returned to California where he used his father’s connections to get a job selling organic, mildew-resistant melons to movie stars in Beverly Hills. The job was short-lived however when he drove the truck with thousands of dollars of watermelons, honeydew and cantaloupe to a political demonstration and, leaving the truck unattended, had all his merchandise stolen.
Spoiled do-gooders like Prescott follow similar paths. They wander in and out of college. They travel to Europe to find themselves. They join political causes for the same purpose. They identify with some oppressed group or other. They perform at poetry slams portraying themselves as victims of some hideous trauma revealed to them in hypnosis therapy. Or they join some religious cult that demands a life of complete self-denial while it siphons their hefty allowance and teaches them to hate their parents, who are of course the very source of that allowance. The pain they cause is usually limited to their family and themselves. Their shrill nature makes them far more annoying than the needy attention-getter but their ranking on the danger scale is far below that of a more virulent do-gooder, the bully.
The do-gooder bully usually belongs to an organization, often one with claims to divine revelation, that picks on phony societal issues while ignoring society’s real problems. Not wanting to address anything that would require complex thought or target an opponent that might fight back, these do-gooder organizations usually bully some harmless and helpless target, libraries and public schools being two common examples. The do-gooder bully will campaign against a book that is too gritty or shows a “lifestyle” that doesn’t conform to the bully’s puritanical, sanitized ideal or is simply “too disturbing” for a child’s consumption. Or these bullies will spend endless hours watching TV or listening to some juvenile radio personality while they eagerly wait for the utterance of a “bad” word, at which time they will salivate with glee and then post a report of the naughtiness on their website and congratulate themselves for performing such a good deed.
Another subcategory of the do-gooder bully is the Health Police, an organization dedicated to removing or taxing what it deems unhealthy sugar- and fat-laden foods such as movie popcorn, Mexican food, Chinese food, pizza, soda pop, and fast-food burgers. As someone well-versed in vegetarian cooking and the daily practice of yoga, I am, according to some, a likely candidate for supporting the Health Police’s agenda. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I am much too pessimistic about the rapacious appetites that are so firmly entrenched in America’s culture that I see the Health Police’s mission to reform the typical American’s gluttonous, slothful lifestyle as a lame and feeble exercise. Contrary to my skepticism, the Health Police will argue that we must “educate” the public. But “educating” the public has already proven to be a complete waste of time. The nutritional facts have long been available. It’s been pounded into our brains that inactivity combined with a diet of processed foods sodden with fat and sugar will make us obese, afflict us with diabetes and eventually kill us. Yet in the face of this obvious and all-too-easily-accessible data most Americans still indulge in troglodyte eating habits, venturing into all-you-can-eat buffets and slopping incongruous heaps of food matter on platters the size of surf boards and going to “steak houses,” which are in actuality fantasy theme parks, the fantasy being “let’s be Cro-Magnon Man for a day.”
If the Health Police wants to see how their attempts to stifle Americans’ appetites will end up, I refer them to the days of Prohibition when do-gooders attempted to curb America’s love of alcohol. Forbidding and taxing what people want simply creates a underground market and violent crime. Of course, the Health Police are too busy congratulating themselves on their enlightened healthy lifestyle to take a an objective look at history.
Another group that ignores history and facts is the most dangerous of all the do-gooders, the ignorant and sanctimonious Westerner who feels compelled to enlighten other cultures but succeeds only in colonizing them. Or with the help of a humanitarian organization, he brings food and other supplies to a country afflicted with famine, draught and pestilence only to find that without the proper foresight and operational competence, cunning warlords in the region will steal those supplies and sell them to amass weapons which they will use against the very people the humanitarian supplies were intended. Or this Westerner will try in his ignorance to impose his notion of democracy on a nation so fragmented by ethnic and religious strife and so recalcitrant to anything resembling Western democracy that the Westerner’s presence only incites hostility, insurgency, and confirms the region’s deeply-rooted suspicions that the Western “intervention” has an ulterior motive, usually focused on exploiting the region’s natural resources.
One can look at America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq as a painful case study in the do-gooder’s utopian fantasy turning into a nightmare that is being grieved by people of all political persuasions and could very well make the small circle of do-gooder neocons, who arguably authored the Iraqi Invasion, one of the most ignominious, misguided political movements in U.S. history.
No matter his scale of importance, the do-gooder is a pious fraud and a frustrated failure who, as Eric Hoffer points out in The True Believer, hides his insignificance by joining mass movements that ostensibly exist to perform good deeds or force social upheaval throughout the world. But the do-gooder’s excessive zeal combined with his conspicuous absence of expertise cause his missions to end in disaster. The do-gooder’s role in creating unintended catastrophes combined with his chafing know-it-all personality justify our contempt for him, with the Western Imperialist being the most contemptuous of all.