P O S T E D B Y J O N
Guest blogger Jon Van Til takes us through the looking glass in this meditation on the role of the “Independent Sector” in contemporary American society. If you’re interested in being a guest contributor to White Courtesy Telephone, contact us by writing to courtesy_telephone (at) yahoo.com.
With gratitude to Lewis Carroll and William Van Til
When Alice was a little girl, she popped down the rabbit hole and visited Wonderland, where she had strange adventures and interesting conversations. Later, she went through the Looking Glass and visited the courts of the White Queen and the Red Queen.
Time passed. Alice grew up and became a nonprofit organization manager. But she never outgrew her habit of visiting Wonderland and Looking Glass House. She went back—every 6 years because 6 is a very nice number though not as odd as either 5 or 7.
So 2007 came around and Alice found herself at a wonderful reunion, a Mad Tea Party attended by the March Hare, the Hatter, the Dormouse, and all of the other inhabitants of Wonderland.
“No room, no room!” they cried when they saw Alice.
“There’s plenty of room,” said Alice indignantly. “That’s a very rude way to greet a person who hasn’t been back since 2001, 6 years ago.” She sat down anyway.
“Tell us a story!” said the March Hare.
“Tell us about that odd place you come from,” ordered the Queen of Hearts. “Is it the Delighted States or the Benighted States? Else, off with your head.”
“It’s the United States,” corrected Alice, for she had gone to a good university and had learned to call things by their right names.
“Are they really United?” asked the March Hare. “Last time you were here you were telling us about divisions between your Red and Blue states.”
“Oh, things are fine there now,” said Alice. “The Fundamentalist Ministers who were behind the rise of the Red States have become strong environmentalists, and in Massachusetts, the cradle of the American Revolution 230 years ago, there’s less fighting over marrying men and women separately and more interest in health care reform.”
“Time for some Woman Talk,” boomed the Queen of Hearts. “How fare the women?”
“They’re liberated now,” said Alice enthusiastically. “We’re achieving equal rights and that’s good. Something else is happening though. Marriage is becoming unfashionable. Men and women often live together temporarily and break up whenever they’re inclined to have sexual relations with someone else.”
“So who takes care of the children?” asked the Queen.
“We haven’t figured that out yet,” said Alice apologetically. “Many young people also run around doing their own thing. Some are practicing the three Ds—Delinquency, Drugs, and Deviation.”
“Such bad behavior!” roared the Queen. “Off with their heads!" She flounced to the foot of the table.
“It’s really not their fault,” said Alice. “Somebody really ought to take care of the children.”
Alice was left alone with the Mad Hatter. “Surely your schools and all those voluntary youth-serving organizations are helping the young people deal with your problems,” said the Mad Hatter. “Surely the schools teach more than just Reeling and Writhing and the different branches of arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” He waited.
“You don’t expect the schools to deal with such controversial problems, do you?” asked Alice indignantly.
The Mad Hatter tried once more. “Surely your youth organizations are concerned about these problems?”
“Our educational leaders both in schools and youth-serving organizations,” said Alice virtuously, “are greatly concerned about accountability, budgeting systems, efficiency, teacher welfare, administrative reorganization, and leaving no child behind.”
“Do they ever ask what education and youth development are for? Aren’t they concerned about the survival of your Disunited States?”
“Everybody knows what education and youth development are for,” said Alice angrily.
“What?” asked the Mad Hatter.
Alice started to tell him. But the Mad Hatter moved to the foot of the table and paid no attention. Everyone started talking together about other things, and only gradually did silence return.
The Cheshire Cat grinned. “You know what she claimed the last time she was here in 2001? She claimed that the Americans believed that there was something called the ‘third sector’ that was going to make government and business behave more sensibly.”
The King said judiciously, “I have heard that the Americans have flown to Iraq and dropped a lot of bombs, and at home the people they call ‘corporate leaders’ have stolen a lot of money, and some are even in jail.”
“Absolutely right,” said Alice triumphantly. “There was even one scholar who asserted that society’s ‘third sector’ had become its most important institutional field.”
“By the way,” asked the Hatter, “if this sector is so important, why is it called the ‘third’?”
“I think I know,” said the Queen, “It existed before politics and business, so it really is the ‘first.’”
The King chided his mate, “But, dear, surely you recall that the family, or what they call in the British/Irish isles the ‘informal sector,’ really comes first.”
“Then of course,” said the Dodo, “if it is first or second, it should be added together and called ‘third.’ And I assume that the newspapers and the magazines and the radio and the TV programs must now be complimenting the helpful and wise leaders of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, since the leaders of the first and second sectors have been shown to be so incompetent or greedy or corrupt or malevolent. The scientists and scholars and journalists and politicians must be singing the praises of these wise leaders of foundations and service organizations and think tanks.”
“Not at all,” said Alice. “After the great triumph in Iraq (which never happened), and the housecleaning in the corporations (which really only stung a couple of companies), I read the papers and the magazines and listened to the radio and TV programs. I read the comments of the great American opinion leaders. And no one has even mentioned the role of the independent sector in coming to replace the fallen standing of government and business.”
Everybody began throwing things more wildly than before and shrieking “Liar, liar!” at Alice. “But the last time you were here, you told us about how this ‘independent’ sector was really very ‘interdependent’—getting its money from business and trading for power from political leaders.” Several seized Alice and began stuffing her into the teapot.
“Nobody can be that inconsistent,” said Humpty Dumpty as he shoved Alice deeper into the teapot.
“Americans can,” cried Alice. “After all, they know that the most important organizations, independent or interdependent or whatever, are those that provide no profit to their members.”
“Though sometimes,” said the Dodo, “they appear to make a good deal of profit for legislators and lobbyists who set these organizations up and then arrange for them to be funded by something called ‘earmarks,’ which I must say I am too simple to understand. But I am sure that it makes good sense to call them nonprofit organizations anyway.”
The Queen of Hearts was less understanding, and cried out at Alice, “Off with her head, or at least her earmarks!” All this discussion was too much for the inhabitants of Wonderland, who clamped the top on the teapot containing poor Alice.
The Hatter, who sat on top of the teapot, said to the March Hare, “And Alice thinks that we are the ones who live in Wonderland!”
JON VAN TIL is Professor of Urban Studies at Rutgers University at Camden. He’s the author of ten books, including MAPPING THE THIRD SECTOR (1998) and GROWING CIVIL SOCIETY (2000). He edited the NONPROFIT AND VOLUNTARY SECTOR QUARTERLY for twelve years, and served twice as president of ARNOVA. To read the original presentation of this talk at Trinity College, Dublin (with a scholarly section included), click here.
Image source: Wikipedia