Shop & Live: One Stop By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday December 03, 2004

It’s become a staple Christmas Grinch feature for small town papers, metro dailies, and even NPR: The Salvation Army’s familiar bell ringers with kettles for donations are banned from yet another collection site. This year’s villain is the Target chain, which gets a fair amount of favorable publicity at other times of the year from its foundation’s support of a variety of charitable causes. Target’s excuse is that if they let the Salvation Army collect, everyone else wants to do it too. Sorry, but that’s not good enough. 

The particular virtue of the Army’s collection strategy is that it’s an instantly recognizable reminder that there are still people in need in the community—an uncomfortable and even unpalatable concept for some. Behind the scenes foundation grants, while they may accomplish some good purposes for recipients, don’t do much to educate givers. Signs in Target that X percent of profits go to charity, whether the shopper cares or not, do nothing to spread the perception of responsibility for care of the needy to the rest of society, where it properly belongs. 

The Malling of America (an apt phrase coined by William Kowinski in 1978 when the phenomenon was just getting started) has, among other things, been an attempt to create, yes, reality-free zones across the land. At the mall, the poor are not always with you, or at least they’re tastefully hidden. Malls try to ban untidy ideas as well as untidy people—the one on San Pablo on the Emeryville-Oakland border has just confiscated all of the boxes which distribute free newspapers, including ours. 

This is not to say, of course, that non-mall municipalities don’t try some of the same tricks when they can get away with it. Not too long ago, a coalition of Progs and Mods fronted a ballot initiative which tried to prevent poor people from asking for money in downtown Berkeley. It took a federal judge to explain to City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque that you really can’t ban free speech in public space as long as we still have the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  

But malls and Target parking lots aren’t public space, they’re private fiefdoms which can if they choose ban reality-based activities on behalf of the poor. They can even ban the Salvation Army, which is both faith-based (motivated by religious belief) and reality-based (they do lots of hands-on work with the destitute). And as long as people shop only in malls they can preserve the illusion that everything’s just fine in America, no problem.  

A particularly Berkeleyesque flavor of Puritanism attempts to address the question by denouncing seasonal gift-giving altogether. While there are still people in need somewhere, the reasoning goes, you shouldn’t buy that bottle of perfume for poor old Aunt Nellie. Well, no. Internet theology (what a wonderful modern convenience that is!) informs us that Jesus uttered the much quoted comment that the poor will always be with us in the context of defending a devotee who poured expensive ointments on his head. Commentators galore link his response to principles in Jewish law which can be found in Deuteronomy 15: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” (King James Version—might not be accurately translated, but it’s resonant.) The idea is that both indulgence and charity should be features of the well-ordered life. 

Fortunately, Greater Berkeley offers ample opportunities to maintain balance. As a public service, the Planet is providing a series of features on unusual gift-giving opportunities, and our loyal advertisers are sponsoring a nice holiday gift guide section in December papers. In most on-the-street shopping venues in Berkeley and environs, the Salvation Army kettles and all they represent have not been banned. For example, James Carter of the Albany Chamber of Commerce informs us that there’s one on Solano, in front of the Safeway store, not far from several lovely stores which can be found in our Holiday Gift Guide. He says that two of them have even offered to staff kettles in front of their own doors. As you do your shopping with these fine vendors, you’ll also have the opportunity to support the work the Salvation Army does year-round. What could be more convenient?  

—Becky O’Malley?