The panhandlerati

What are the ethics of asking for money?

Artillery Row

I’ve always had a soft spot for women who are brazen about their robust egos. Self-professed “show off” journalist Julie Burchill remains the reigning queen of those in the public eye who know they’re worth it and aren’t ashamed to say so. There is a world of difference between taking pride in being talented, and the entitled, moral posturing of the professionally needy.

Today we find loitering online a new brand of panhandling progressives who seem to expect fans to give them money simply for existing. From GoFundMe to Ko-fi, donation sites have democratised the process of parting with cash and legitimised dubious demands for it. In social media bios, faddish diagnoses jostle alongside preferred pronouns, to mark out “the deserving” in a thriving new micro-economy of dinner party radicals.

Prominent among them is Jack Monroe, who describes herself both as “a food writer, political commentator, photographer, poet and public speaker” and also as a “heavily tattooed, working class, autistic, disabled, poor single mum in recovery”. The multi-labelled cook invites visitors to her “cooking on a bootstrap” website to part with cash through PayPal on two different donation pages. 

Granted, success must have come as something of a disappointment to Monroe who made her name as an anti-poverty campaigner. Today, she not only receives royalties from seven books, including the best-selling Cooking On a Bootstrap, but an income from the 663 subscribers to her page on the fundraising platform Patreon, each of whom donate between £3.50 and £44 (plus VAT) every month for differing levels of access to her content. Even with the lowest tier subscription, this amounts to over two thousand pounds each month. 

An online investigator who goes by the pseudonym “Awfully Molly” has dug into the apparent inconsistencies in Monroe’s backstory and more widely into the “recurring patterns” in the behaviour of “online grifters”. On her website she explains this is in part an attempt to encourage people to be “kind not blind, and to consider whether they are being emotionally manipulated. As a result, Molly says she has been “hounded with threats of both legal and police action”.

Why does Cambridge-educated Harris need additional funding from fans?

Ultimately, Monroe’s entrepreneurship and campaigning credentials are impressive, but despite being a long way from the ASDA smart price breadline, Jack has avoided saying “I’m alright and instead continues to hold out the online begging bowl. 

Shame about asking for money has been replaced by shame of admitting that one has worked hard and is comfortably off. This is a peculiar feature of elite left-wingers who find that somewhat embarrassingly they have done rather well from existing within “the system” they claim to hate. 

This phenomenon is not limited to those who came of age online. Chocolat author Joanne Harris (OBE, FRSL) has over two decades on Monroe. “Like what I do?” asks the best-selling author on her website above a link to “Ko-fi” — a fundraising site where supporters can “buy her a coffee”. To date Harris has received 2,224 donations for £3 coffees, amounting to over six and a half thousand pounds. She writes blog posts, which are free to read, on the fundraising site.

Describing her beliefs on her website with all the earnest vim of a sixth-form Socialist Worker, she proclaims, “I’m a Remainer. I’m left-wing. I’m pro-choice. I wear a mask in public places. I support trans rights. I’m afraid of climate change. I hate racism in all its forms.” She claims that for holding these somewhat pedestrian views she has been the victim of persecution. 

Whilst it does not always follow that having a high profile commands a high salary, it’s reasonable to ask why the Cambridge-educated Harris — who has penned twenty-three novels to date, holds a slew of honorary doctorates and chairs the Society of Authors — believes she needs additional funding from fans? Apparently, it is to assist with the recording of an album for her band, a hobby which most adults might seek to fund themselves.

Yet with their tick box Guardian views, they are the establishment

Arguably, it is easier to ask followers to part with money from behind a screen. Presumably Harris would feel a twinge of shame about passing around a hat for spare change to audiences after talks at literature festival events. 

There is probably an element of sour grapes here — and a faint smell of hypocrisy. Following in the footsteps of some of my fellow freelancers I set-up a Ko-fi account because, rewarding though it may be, writing opinion commentary, even for national newspapers, is less than lucrative. I’m not on the cusp of using a foodbank, nor scared to flick on the heating switch. I am, in the grand scheme of things, fortunate. The idea that someone with less than me might donate gnawed away at my conscience. The page remains live but the idea of promoting it makes me cringe.

What grates about the likes of Harris and Monroe is that these accomplished professionals, who should be proud of their success, are apparently keen to position themselves as if they were struggling creatives, huddled on the margins of a hostile world. Yet with their tick box Guardian views and gasps of moral outrage, they are the establishment. There should never be any shame in needing money — but it’s healthy to sustain a little shame in asking for it.

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