In response to comments by nobody.really in a previous post, I’ve been pondering (not very actively, I admit) reasons why I bother to participate in civic affairs. More specifically, I mentioned that I perform in public concerts, usually during the summer months, mostly without remuneration. He offered that I must derive some sort of satisfaction out of the activity, whereas I characterized it as work done at my own expense and sacrifice without much satisfaction.
I’m familiar with the
twisted logic that altruism is really a mask for self-interest, but I don’t really want to argue that point. Nor do I want to make mistake of characterizing charitable work done for the public good as backbreaking labor. Both of those approaches are hyperbole. Rather, the question that needs to be addressed, in my view at least, is why bother making any contributions to the greater public good if no tangible reward accrues, be it financial or public esteem or self-esteem or what-have-you? My conclusion is simple: I’m not sure.
Being a musician is frequently a relatively anonymous activity. Whatever hours are spent onstage performing, multiply that by four or more for rehearsal time (in ensemble) and another two or three for practice time (alone in the studio or at home). It’s clearly a financial disincentive to bother unless you’re already among the relatively few superstars who are well paid and adored by the public. Rank and file musicians labor entire careers in nameless obscurity for the art, lost in the sea of faces on stage or hidden in the orchestra pit, and lots of them give away their time and effort to free concerts.
Why do I do it, specifically? I guess I’ve internalized the idea that if I don’t contribute my skills to underfunded (or simply unfunded) activities, and others similarly withhold their participation, then those activities simply won’t exist anymore. It’s already happening, in fact. Lots of municipalities used to approve, say, $100K for a summer park band, and because there are all manner of administrative bills to be paid first, little of that money went to performers. But it’s like sponsoring a parade or a fireworks display on July 4th, which is to say, it’s a public good that creates community and involves citizens in public affairs on some level. Well, lots of municipalities are now running sizeable budget deficits, what with prisons and schools and infrastructure, among other things, gobbling up chunks by the millions. So what goes unfunded? The summer band. Those administrative costs never do go away, so even if people were willing to show up totally for free, the event still won’t happen. The public tends increasingly to stay away, too, huddled in the living room around the TV or in the den at the computer. Live performance can scarcely compete with electronic media, and it’s slowly ebbing away.
In a wider sense, civic involvement is an aspect of being a good citizen. In childhood, I earned Boy Scout merit badges for Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World. I no longer remember much about them, but the ideal has stayed with me, namely, that participation in different levels of the public arena is a worthwhile and necessary part of our being — even when (perhaps especially when) it required some sacrifice. For instance, I also participate in a free speech forum by researching and delivering speeches (topics may be political or merely general public interest). There is some gratitude and appreciation that comes my way, sure, but it’s all out of proportion (underwhelming) compared to the three months of preparation I do to be able to speak knowledgeably and without wasting the audience’s time. To the climbers among us, it’s a futile and quaint notion to bother investing time and effort for others’ enjoyment or edification. The controlling question is always “What’s in it for me?” My answer is “nothing” — at least not directly. The idea of being a community, society, or civilization means collective action toward the public good balanced against individual freedom from burdensome obligation. In my view, we’ve strayed pretty far toward one side of the continuum. My guess is that you can guess which one.