WHAT PAUL NEWMAN SAID at the Oscars ceremony last week was nothing short of astonishing. As he accepted the Jean Hersholt Award, a special honor bestowed upon him for his humanitarian work, Newman told the assembled glitterati: "In my estimation, the United States is the most generous nation on the face of the planet."
Not that Newman's remark isn't perfectly true. Americans are a people of breathtaking generosity. But what really takes the breath away is to hear someone from Planet Hollywood say so. Charitable giving and philanthropic activity are a way of life for scores of millions of Americans. Yet to hear the stars of the screen and the concert hall tell it, you'd think ours was a land of unrepentant Scrooges, stingy to its heartless core.
"You have national leaders" -- thus spake Geraldo Rivera on the Arsenio Hall show -- "who . . . have been preaching that greed is good," resulting in "malignant despair . . . increasing poverty . . . and an increasing gulf between the poor and the rich."
"How," Harry Belafonte rhetorically asked The New York Times in 1992, ''do you end hunger and greed in a place so driven by such greed and avarice?"
Similar indictments are handed down even by entertainers who are noted philanthropists.
Thus Irish musician Bob Geldof, impresario of the Live Aid and Band Aid concerts that raised huge sums for famine relief in the 1980s, who sharply lectures us: "It would be easy for America to feed its hungry and to house its homeless, and it is an undying shame for the country that chooses to take the moral high ground -- it is a lasting shame that you choose not to help your poor and your hungry and your homeless."
Or Barbra Streisand -- though she herself has given millions to charity -- lashing out at as she introduced Hillary Clinton at a fund-raiser in January (just days after being paid $20 million by the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for two performances over the New Year's weekend): "For more than a decade, the reliance of our presidents on selfish individualism led us into the wasteland of official indifference to the suffering of many."
Wrong, Bob. Not so, Barb. In 1992, this nation gave $124.3 billion to charity. Only 11.5 percent of that phenomenal sum came from foundations and corporations. The vast majority of it -- 88.5 percent -- came from the pockets (or in some cases, the estates) of individual Americans.
The 1992 total was a record. So was the 1991 total. And the one in 1990. In fact, the total amount of money given to charity in the United States has increased every year since 1959, which is when the Trust for Philanthropy (the authoritative source on the subject) began tracking the figures.
No matter how you calculate those figures -- actual dollar amounts, inflation-adjusted numbers, per-capita, percentage of GDP -- Americans give and give and give. During the boom years of the 1980s, charitable giving grew faster than the economy. (The much-maligned "Decade of Greed" was really the ''Decade of Giving.") But even during the recession years, charitable giving climbed.
Where does it come from, this extraordinary generosity of ordinary Americans? Some stems from the spirit of cooperative citizenship that has always been a part of the American character. Some stems from the religious obligation to give to the poor -- an injunction common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But the main reason Americans are so amazingly generous with their money is that they are free to make money. The dollars most of us give to charity don't come from good intentions, they come from work. From producing goods and providing services. From Newman's Own popcorn; from the "Yentl" soundtrack. From buying and selling, earning a living, turning a profit.
Charity, in short, comes from capitalism.
Those -- listen up, Barbra -- who demand immense government spending programs on the grounds that the private sector can't be depended on to feed the hungry and help the homeless (and support the arts and promote education and save endangered species) don't know what they're talking about. We Americans will give away more money to charity this year than we did last year. If government didn't confiscate so much of our earnings, we could give away even more.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)