So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)
Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.
In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?
The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.
Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.
The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.) A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.