My old compatriot from law school Ann Coulter has a habit of writing columns not designed to advance her interests as a columnist. When Coulter's friend Joe Sobran died, she wrote a column praising Joe without reservation. Given the relative power of Joe's friends and Joe's enemies, some wondered if this was wise. Indeed, another writer who wrote a profile of Sobran stated that it was impossible to write favorably about Joe without also condemning him. Coulter didn't care about such calculations; she simply wrote what she believed.
And so it was this week, when Ann Coulter wrote a column raising hard questions about the sort of global philanthropy practiced by Dr. Kent Brantly, who went to Liberia to help and ended up contracting the Ebola virus and being flown home, together with his nurse, for treatment, at the cost to his charity of $2,000,000 and counting. This column has enraged many, including many of the evangelical Christians Coulter surely knows comprise a large percentage of her readers. But Coulter's wondering why Dr. Brantly couldn't serve Christ in America echoes Mother Teresa, who told a Milwaukee woman offering to volunteer in India "to do good in her own hometown, to find Calcutta in Milwaukee."
I am quoting not Mother Teresa but Tom Fleming, who devotes chapter 3 of his excellent The Morality of Everyday Life to a critique of global philanthropy. Fleming states the problem succinctly: "Many people who actually prefer to live in a traditional society have nonetheless come to believe that life on the human scale might be selfish and immoral. Taking care of our families, doing our jobs well, giving alms to beggars, and being loyal to our friends is not enough. We are called upon to cultivate global awareness and to accept responsibility for the entire world." Fleming proceeds to show how such "global awareness" can all too easily lead us astray, and notes that "the private efforts of charitable individuals in their own neighborhoods and cities will never attract newspaper headlines." Fleming also reminds us that Thomas Aquinas wrote that "In what concerns nature we should love our kinsmen most, . . . and we are more closely bound to provide them with the necessities of life."
Some have denounced as heartless Coulter's observation that "If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia," but her conclusion is in line with that of the early Jesuits, who came to focus their educational efforts on the upper stratum of society precisely because a converted nobleman was in a position to do much more good than a converted peasant. And despite being indefatigable missionaries, those early Jesuits also knew that most of us are called to do good where we are, which is why Ignatius at one point said that he would not accept any more requests for assignment to foreign missions, advising his confreres to see the classroom as their mission field. That remains good advice still.
An additional point that Coulter could have made is that the shortage of doctors in places like Liberia is another aspect of globalism. Many doctors from Africa and throughout the Third World now practice in the United States. Rather than send doctors to the Third World, we should no longer encourage Third World doctors to come here. They will do more good where they are, and more good than the American doctors coming to replace them, because they already have a familiarity with their native place and their countrymen that it will take well-meaning foreigners years, decades, or even a lifetime to acquire.
Ann Coulter makes mistakes, as all columnists do, but I hope that she never loses her wllingness to call 'em as she sees 'em, a quality becoming increasingly rare in our age of growing timidity and conformity.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.