Sweet charity?

When a government fails its poor, giving can become a radical act

Some of the more hostile inhabitants of Blogland are already spitting blood at the thought of Bill Clinton profiting from a book called Giving, even if a "portion" of profits will be donated to charitable causes. Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World (Knopf) is described in the publisher's press release as "an inspiring look at how indiv idual endeavours can save lives and solve problems". Clinton is interested in the donating of time and talent as well as money, and the process of giving them. Giving can offer fulfilment and life- changing experiences, he says, strengthening "the fabric of our shared humanity".

If it had come from a more anonymous source, this idea might seem platitudinous. It fits comfortably into a solid American tradition of private and corporate philanthropy, and there is nothing obviously controversial about the argument's New Testament flavour. But the state of the American political scene, and the Clintons' continuing role in it, give the proposition more bite than a Sunday school sermon. Where does the book stand, we are bound to wonder, on the ravages of the Bush administration and the pro mises of a new Clinton White House?

In this context, Giving certainly seems open to attack from the left. It is not an innocent thing - with the 2008 election looming and Hillary leading from the centre - for Bill to champion private and corporate giving.

On the other hand, neither giving as a concept, nor the ends to which Clinton wishes us to give - to promote equality, to alleviate the misery of the poor, to save lives "down the street and around the globe" - plays well with the right. And the right in America, when one takes time to look at it, extends into vistas of dizzying weirdness.

From Clinton's online critics, you can currently learn that Giving illustrates what they see as the basic fallacies of Democratic econ omic thinking: charitable giving, like welfare, increases poverty by making people irrespon sible; we all have the capacity to be wealthier if we want to; and if you can't afford to pay your own way, it's because you haven't done anything useful. The briefest encounter with this type of stuff inclines one to support anyone who champions charity.

Giving, the publisher tells us, is about "citizen activism", and that phrase alone suggests whose side Clinton is on. The disasters and disgraces of the Bush administration have revitalised the American left, uniting old activists of Clinton's own Sixties generation with younger progressives. The argument of Giving is sharpened by this context. So long as we have an administration that can't respond to the problems of the nation - or, indeed, the world - with a minimum of wisdom and decency, as Clinton might be heard to say, we should all do whatever we can to get on with it ourselves.

Joe Treasure's novel "The Male Gaze" is published by Picador (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other