Trevor Noah: There's a New Court Jester in Town



A New Court Jester in Town

I've written a lot about Stephen Colbert and how much I appreciate someone with such a strong yet progressive Christian faith, reaching the audience he does. I listened to an interview with Trevor Noah of The Daily Show recently, and I find myself equally appreciative to have his voice in our cultural conversation.

Noah grew up in Mandela-era South Africa--and he grew up "very very poor" in Soweto. His background gives him a very different perspective, and it's a welcome one. (If you haven't seen his bit about how Donald Trump is an African president, check it out now.)

Noah has talked about how bizarre it is to be as dirt poor as he was, now navigating fame and fortune. Here's one exchange between Noah and Linda Holmes, the interviewer:

I was going to the Emmys and someone suggested I get a stylist. I inquired as to how much a stylist cost. And I was told anywhere between 5 and 25 thousand dollars.

Per what?

Per styling!

Per individual event?

No, I thought it was to buy the person as well! But it's not. This is what people are paying! I couldn't bring myself to do it. In fact I said I would rather take the money, buy one outfit myself, take a chance on that red carpet, have it out with the fashion police, and then take the rest of the money and give it to charity... and at least I know every time I'm on the worst dressed list, there's a bunch of kids cheering, because they know they got the money I would have spent looking good.

He also addressed head-on the good intentions of people who say, "I want diversity in hiring---this position is open to absolutely anyone," but then do nothing to ensure that people of color or women even hear about the position. We rely on our own networks to find people, Noah says---it's an understandable impulse, but when our networks are comprised of people who look and think like we do, it doesn't get the job done. For example, when The Daily Show put out a call for correspondents, they plugged into the network of agents and managers, and got something like 1,000 applicants... four of whom were black people. He thought "Well, maybe black people don't like the Daily Show." Then he was in a comedy club and met up with a table full of black comics, one of whom said, "Hey, if you need anybody for The Daily Show, I'd like to try for it." Turns out none of the people around the table had heard about the casting call because none of them had agents or managers. Diversity is work, Noah concluded, but it's worthwhile work... and if you put out a call to your usual networks and do nothing else, you haven't done the work.

Jon Stewart often saw himself as the court jester for the media. They were his target, and he was at his best when battling their excesses and biases. Trevor may end up being the court jester for the privileged. Which could be very interesting to watch---especially if he can do it with a smile and a laugh. I'm interested to see where the show ends up.

Can Religious Communities Help People Be More Generous?

A friend recently shared this New York Times article about the "charitable-giving divide" between rich and poor. You might think that wealthy people would give a higher percentage of their incomes to charity, since they have more income to spare, but in fact the opposite is true: "In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent." Also, higher income folks give much of their money away to cultural institutions or universities rather than to organizations that help the poor. Money quote:

[One study found that] lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.

“Upper class” people, on the other hand, clung to values that “prioritized their own need.” And “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.” Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.

I haven't done a lot of reading to validate these claims. But it does bring to mind something Robert told me recently about environmental responsibility and the "moral balance sheet." People who do activities that they deem to be green will cut themselves a lot more slack in other areas. For example, people who have an energy-efficient washing machine do more laundry than people who don't. They sort of grade themselves on the curve.

I wonder if it's a similar dynamic here---wealthy people think "Well I give a lot more in absolute dollars, so who cares that it's a smaller percentage?" Assuming they even know about the discrepancy, or care...

Part of the empathy problem is that wealthy folks can isolate themselves from the needs of others. However, one study revealed that "if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared."

Maybe churches and other places of worship can help?

One of the assertions the "new atheists" like to make is that religion serves little to no purpose. However, I think religious communities are places---one of the few places, actually---where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds live and share community in a mutual way. It is there that the empathy deficit can be built up again.

Certainly there is a lot of income stratification within churches and other places of worship. Like groups together with like. But I've been in churches in which people with vacation homes worshiped side-by-side with people who were barely off food stamps. Pastors get more of an inside look at people's financial situations---we visit their homes, we get told about bankruptcies---and believe me, there's a lot more income disparity than people might assume on the surface. So how can our places of worship help foster the kind of compassion and empathy that allow the wealthy to give more sacrificially?

UPDATE 4 p.m.: This article (also from the NYT) is about the Muslim prayer room that was in the Twin Towers pre-9/11. It is making a point about the peaceful Muslim presence that was there; however, I was struck by the description of the people who prayed there: "On any given day, Mr. Abdus-Salaam’s companions in the prayer room might include financial analysts, carpenters, receptionists, secretaries and ironworkers. There were American natives, immigrants who had earned citizenship, visitors conducting international business — the whole Muslim spectrum of nationality and race." This is exactly the kind of equalizing dynamic I'm thinking about!