In this scene from Monsieur Vincent, the French chancellor summons Vincent de Paul to his well-appointed office to receive a valuable lesson in the management of the underclass. Challenging the social and political structures that give rise to yawning disparities is out of the question. But effective managers have many options. For example, Bottom of Pyramid (BoP) consumers with “severely limited resources” can have their product awareness and demand appropriately “stimulated,” generating market rate returns for Impact Investors. In times of fiscal belt-tighetning, the poor can be persuaded to allow their unused organs to be harvested for the benefit of the more productive classes. The bracing effect of the market will ultimately separate the winners from the losers, driving the latter to an early demise and thus relieving the strain on public coffers. If we’re impatient, we can simply “disappear” the poor, putting out of sight a demographic that undermines our faith in the benevolence of market forces. The goal is an uninterrupted flow of capital and goods, a sustained growth in the GDP. And for this we need good order. How to achieve it? Best not to ask too many questions.
Chancellor: The poor are multiplying and they’ve become a real threat. Beggars everywhere! And nowadays, if you don’t give them anything they threaten you.
Vincent de Paul: They’re hungry.
Chancellor: With my job, I have other kinds of hunger to appease! France is hungry, for safety, for order ... I’ve requested your presence here because I have some good news. After your life-long dedication to them, you’ll be happy to hear that, in two days, there will be no more poor people!
Vincent de Paul: How?
Chancellor: It’s very simple. They’re under arrest.
Vincent de Paul: But poverty is not a crime.
Chancellor: I’m afraid it very surely leads to it. My job is to anticipate, and that’s what I’m doing.
Speaking at a discussion hosted by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, made this observation:
Oftentimes we miss moments to challenge the cultural conversation and we instantly go to policy. And I think that’s where we lose. We can’t have conversations outside of culture and where people are getting their information every day. We have to challenge that and hold those structures accountable the same way we want to hold elected officials accountable.
Rashad is right to say that many activists see policy change as the Holy Grail of social change efforts, or that, at the very least, they tend to underplay the role played by culture in keeping low-income communities marginalized. Activists and funders fall prey to the Systems Heresy: the belief that injustice is largely “structural,” that it’s the property of a system that regulates human behavior rather than a property of actors who are frequently all too human.
If policy change is difficult, the shifting of culture must seem impossible by comparison. It happens so slowly, so imperceptibly. We know from the history of large social change efforts in the United States—women’s suffrage, the ending of slavery—that shifts in cultural norms both precede and lag behind significant policy victories. Attitudes about women and African Americans continue to evolve. Unfortunately, the time scale for these cultural changes makes them unlikely candidates for foundation funding which is too often focused on the quick victory—or its simulacrum. Given that a cultural shift will take its own sweet time, is it even worth the attempt to accelerate the process?
If cultural change efforts do in fact get a raw deal from grantmakers (and I have no reason to doubt those who tell me they do), is it time for the foundation world to reassess its priorities? I’m struck by the fact that my colleagues seldom send me links to earnest reports about low-income communities. Instead my inbox brims with clips from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show skewering the attempts of policymakers to dismantle the safety net for the poor. Perhaps more effectively than any study of racial and economic disparities, movies such as Precious have reached millions of people capable of empathy and opened their eyes to the overwhelming challenges of living in poverty.
By contrast, so many reports on the plight of the marginalized have been dead on arrival. Just in the past three months, in my own beloved city, we’ve been overwhelmed by the bad news. This past June, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, alongside the Orleans Parish Place Matters team, published a report titled Place Matters for Health in Orleans Parish: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All. Among its key findings was the fact that the average life expectancy in Orleans Parish varied by as much as 25 years depending on a person’s zip code of residence, and that those zip codes with the lowest life expectancy had a higher population of low-income and people of color. The poorest zip code in the city, with a majority population of African Americans, had an average life expectancy of 55 years while the zip code with less poverty and a mostly white population reached 80, a 25-year difference! Another report this past June from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center analyzed new census and other survey data to find, among other things, that 48 percent of our black children in Orleans Parish—that’s one in two—live in poverty, defined as an income of about $18,000 supporting a family of two adults and a child. A more recent report published by the Urban League found that nearly 30 percent of black students in New Orleans—that’s one in three—had been suspended or expelled from the Recovery School District, more than twice the statewide rate and over four times the national rate, due to stringent, zero-tolerance policies. These policies have left us with 14,000 youth between the age of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. My foundation contributed to the long string of dismal news with its own study of asset poverty in New Orleans.
And yet there’s been no outcry, no wringing of hands, no rending of garments.
We need these data to understand the magnitude of the challenges that face us. Yet what a serious miscalculation to believe that numbers quantifying the misery of our neighbors are sufficient to move us to action. And here, I believe, is where we can learn from the cultural geniuses among us. They, much more than the rest of us, understand how to make lifeless numbers jump off the page; they have ideas for breathing life into depressing graphs of mostly downward trends.
One aspect of their genius is their appreciation of the complexity of culture. Culture to them is not a bone we gnaw on together, a dented fender we attempt to hammer smooth. It’s less like an object we bang on and more like the air we breathe, the invisible threads of meaning that connect us.
I fear that activists and funders might be stuck, unable or unwilling to embrace the key roles played by potent cultural forces such as empathy and shame-inducing satire. How can the champions of culture help us reinvigorate our sluggish steps toward social change? In the US context, perhaps, we’ll never acquire a culture in which public deliberation becomes a significant force. In this new Dark Age, dominated by the new American Visigoths—the Radical Religious Right, the anti-government activists—how can culture help truth gain a foothold?
How, short of civil war, does a nation typically work through periods of intense social polarization? In the United States we face persistent racial and ethnic divisions as well as stark income and asset inequalities. We’re currently experiencing these differences in the context of some very uncivil election year rhetoric and the emergence of a new kind of American class consciousness characterized by the Occupy Movement.
Given these polarizing forces, what is the glue that keeps contemporary American society from spinning apart? Is it simple inertia, a kind of consumerist satiety? Do we ever in fact learn to resolve our differences, or do they come into greater or lesser focus depending on the whims of our commentariat? If we manage somehow to work through our divisions, where does this bridging work happen?
It’s not the first time in recent history that we’ve come to a perceived boiling point. In a 1995 book titled Beyond Individualism, Michael Piore wrote about a “social deficit” created in the 1980s and early 90s that eventually led to increased political mobilization and social instability. A pivotal event of that era, according to Piore, was President Reagan’s crushing of the federal air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981, an action that “galvanized anti-union managerial factions in a whole variety of industries and occupations where union organization had previously been unassailable.” It was open season on organized labor. The wealthiest Americans saw a marked increase in their standard of living while the incomes of blue collar workers declined. The savings and loan crisis and its attendant bailout presaged our contemporary financial market meltdown and moved some commentators to dub the period between 1985 and 1995 the “Looting Decade.”
Political life also took a nasty turn. The Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ads in 1988 alienated black Americans, while the family values rhetoric of the 1992 campaign targeted single mothers, feminists, and gays and lesbians. Against this backdrop of political turmoil, identity groups grew in visibility and pressed their claims on American society. According to Piore, we could not, during this fiscally lean era, opt to settle these claims through massive social spending. All of this created an atmosphere of tension and instability, perhaps not substantially different in feeling and tone from the one we’re currently experiencing.
To address this increased polarization, Piore suggested that politicians and policymakers champion the borderlands, institutions in which “social claimants” could cross group boundaries and communicate their needs and concerns to society at large. Through dynamic give-and-take “political conversations” in these borderland institutions, marginalized identity groups could become agents in the creation of a new national culture. Participants in these discussions would interpret their actions to themselves and others in ways that acknowledge the effects of one community of meaning upon another. Perhaps on occasion these discussants would even celebrate their inevitable clashes of interpretation.
There’s so much that’s compelling about Piore’s vision of the borderlands, rooted, as it appears to be, in Aristotle’s view of Man as the “political animal.” Somewhere between Wall Street and the Occupy Movement’s encampments in Zucotti Park there would be a space where both bankers and activists could plead their cases. Ideally the 1% would get a clearer sense of the effect of their actions on people with modest means, while the 99% would better understand the economic system that for better or for worse implicates us all.
Unfortunately, in twenty years or so of nonprofit work, I’ve known only a handful of organizations* that fit the description of a borderland institution. First, most civil society organizations are segregated by race, ethnicity, class, and the other divisions that borderland institutions are expected to bridge. Even when these organizations are not segregated, they seldom make it their mission to champion give-and-take conversations across group boundaries. From my own experience of participation in diversity trainings, poverty summits, and other intergroup meetings, these bridging conversations are fiendishly difficult to pull off.
Of course the mixing of people from different backgrounds happens outside the context of civil society organizations, in such venues as grocery stores, sports stadiums, parade routes, and popular music concerts. But these are not typically places consecrated to boundary-crossing deliberation and the forging of a new civic culture. The fact that Piore dubs his institutions “borderlands” suggests how marginal this kind of discussion has become. Perhaps in some real or imagined past we talked through our differences in the town square or the agora. In these nefarious times, however, we’ve pushed these conversations to the edges of civic life, we’ve made them exceptional rather than central to the political and other processes that shape our national character.
I was surprised and pleased by the question posed by Bill Schambra in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op ed: Is Conservative Philanthropy Ignoring the Poor? His thoughtful article provided a refreshing counterpoint to some of the anti-poor messaging of the Republican primaries. It should be noted that in Democratic primaries, by contrast, candidates don’t so much attack the poor as simply ignore them.
I share Schambra’s admiration for the generous men and women of all political and social ideologies who understand the obligations of living in community. One of the most “progressive” programs in the country, in my view, was launched by a couple with impeccable conservative bona fides. The Taylor Plan, which started in Louisiana but has now been adopted in 21 states, leverages public money with private money to guarantee a college education to all qualifying high school graduates. It’s difficult to find a more compelling contemporary example of work that might over time significantly reduce racial disparities in higher education.
Some readers might have stumbled, as I did, on Schambra’s invocation of George W. Bush as an icon of the “compassionate conservatism” his article celebrates. Many liberals and conservatives still fail to see the compassion in state-sanctioned torture, and in a war declared on false premises that has cost thousands of military and civilian lives and bankrupted the country. Under President Bush, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was notorious for political cronyism, frequently accused of linking grant monies to campaign support.
Putting this issue aside, we can more clearly focus on the heart of Schambra’s argument, which is this:
… [B]eyond the problem of political image lies the more substantial issue of conservatism’s enduring charitable obligation to the poor. Ardent advocacy for reduced government spending is fine, but it must be matched with serious regard for the needs of those affected. This is a moral demand upon a movement that takes moral demands seriously.
A refreshing call to action. As an example of a serious regard for the needs of the poor, Schambra cites a group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver whose largesse helped Step 13, “a small, scruffy rehabilitation center for addicts,” buy the building it could no longer rent.
First, hats off to this forward-thinking group of businessmen who, without being solicited, saw a significant community need and responded to it. Addiction is not an issue typically embraced by individual donors, conservative or otherwise. I’m reminded of the Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region in my own beloved city, an organization that has championed the very difficult issue of prisoner re-entry and re-integration.
Having given credit where credit is due, I invite the reader to reflect on the philanthropic archetype proposed by Schambra, in which a generous patron bestows favor on a grateful supplicant. What concerns me is that this assistance for the supplicant depends very much on the vagaries and inconstancies of donor volition. What if this group of businessmen had not heard about the plight of Step 13? What if they happened to be strapped for cash this particular quarter? Should services for the addicted, a clear and consistent public need, depend so much on chance?
Sticking with this inspiring example, I would rather that our collective noblesse (mine included) be more than morally obliged since experience shows that individual volition can make for a flimsy safety net, especially in those cases where the supplicant has participated in his own ruin. I know that some donors put homeless addicts in the category of the “undeserving poor,” making fundraising for organizations like Step 13 a real challenge.
In complex societies, individuals are typically obliged to support important public goods through taxation. Being a small government liberal, I’m no friend of taxes, and if Mr. Schambra has an alternative, I’d like to hear it. Perhaps instead of levying taxes, we can agree to impose schmaxes, the latter coming into force when and only when the spirit of charity fails us.
Does the recent Komen Foundation debacle signal an increasing scrutiny by the giving public of nonprofit activities? Just as we can’t attribute every record-breaking heat wave to global warming, neither can we assume that recent high profile cases (ACORN, NPR) represent anything like a trend.
Recall that many years ago foundation support for the Boy Scouts took a nose dive after it was revealed that the organization was discriminating against gay men. As long as I can remember, our senators and representatives—both at the national and state levels—have attempted to score political points by targeting charities. I would guess that during any session of Congress there will be at least a handful of bills with provisions to curtail the advocacy rights of nonprofit organizations. (The Alliance for Justice can provide all the sordid details.) Consider also the restrictions on legal service providers that receive funding from the Legal Services Corporation—in force since 1996—and the occasional high-profile ACLU case that’s kicked around like a political football.
What’s clearer to me is that as the American culture wars drag on, more and more charities will be caught in the crossfire.
Charities need to attend to three factors in addition to an increasingly nasty civic culture. We’re living in an age of more activist donors (though I wonder if the research would support this view). The advent of the Internet has raised citizen expectations about the accessibility of information. And finally, calls for transparency in private and public institutions have increased.
Charities beware: You can bet that as we get closer to the November elections, every contribution made by a candidate will be scrutinized. Political operatives will attempt to score big points from a public that generally doesn’t understand the nonprofit sector and can be easily whipped into a froth about the work of shadowy foundations.
I have two primary suggestions for charities. The first is for boards to sit down with their staffs and determine what mission-appropriate transparency means for their organizations. However insistent the calls for transparency might be, I would never, for example, unless I were compelled by law, agree to audiotape board meetings and post these recordings on the Internet. I believe this would stymie the free and open exchange of ideas and ultimately compromise our mission. Other organizations might have a different take on this, but it’s critical for each organization to think through the issue of transparency.
Second, and more importantly in my view, your organization needs to determine whether it has a moral center, and if so, get in touch with it. That means understanding your identity and mission. Years back, the Girl Scouts were willing to take a hit for their nondiscrimination policies. The great value of a not-for-profit organization is that it has no shareholders whose pecuniary desires it needs to satisfy. It can afford to be governed by the love of mankind. Sure, the Girl Scouts lost some donors, but we can assume it gained others in the process.
The time for charities to do their soul-searching is now. Once a campaign against your organization goes viral, it’s time for you to step up to the microphones and tell the world who you are and where you stand. Faced with the question, “What are you about?”, in the wake of an unpopular decision, do you have a clear idea what you would say?
Do you exist to maximize donor support, to perpetuate the life of an institution? or do you exist to advance the cause of justice, however unpopular that might be?
Mr. Schambra’s model for thinking small comes to us by way of the Elizabeth Brinn Foundation whose grant outcomes are “refreshingly concrete and specific.” According to Schambra, “Brinn can point to buildings they helped improve, vans they helped purchase, playgrounds they helped clean up.”
Nothing lackluster about that, we can all agree. A community’s need for buildings, vans, and clean playgrounds is indisputable.
By contrast, the examples of world-changing philanthropy typically paraded by its defenders—the Green Revolution, the crusade against hookworm—elicit a big yawn from Mr. Schambra who asks, What else have you got?
If these have gone stale, I would suggest exploring philanthropy’s contributions to bringing peace to Northern Ireland; providing an all-tuition-paid college education to every high school graduate in Louisiana with a GPA of 2.5 or better (a program now adopted by 21 other states); and ending the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
One of the great ironies here is that the Hudson Institute is itself nothing like those gritty community-based organizations that Mr. Schambra loves to champion (and which I’ve often championed on these pages). Hudson’s modest mission—generously supported by big-thinking philanthropists—is to promote global security, prosperity, and freedom. Haven’t the Institute’s funders gotten Bill’s memo?
One can only speculate about what’s behind Hudson’s eight-year-long campaign against big philanthropy. There are hints about the root causes of Mr. Schambra’s discomfort in his other writings. Because foundations often fill the gaps left by retreating sources of public support, they’re sanctioned by government and given fairly wide latitude in their operations. But if they go too far—if, as Schambra writes, they begin to “undermin[e] traditional sources of authority”—then it’s these sources of authority that must mobilize to curtail their power. We see this in Schambra’s warning, near the end of his op-ed, that the forces of law and good order “may not be so complaisant about philanthropy’s license” if it “drift[s] carelessly and inadvertently into … a revolutionary undertaking.”
You tell me: What’s a “revolutionary undertaking” from the perspective of a conservative think tank? Whatever it is, it’s clearly something very different from the purchase of the aforementioned vans. Perhaps big-thinking philanthropy might succeed in winning a stream of tax dollars for frontline work in low-income communities, a more consistent source of support than the grants from a foundation which, although lionized by Schambra, has already spent itself out of existence.
For those of you who don’t know him, Bill Schambra is the director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank located in Washington, DC. In addition to being, in my view, a man of enormous integrity, he’s also a brilliant thinker and writer. (He certainly needs no endorsement from me; he’d be better off without it.)
North Carolina has been transfixed this past summer by the gripping, tragic testimony of victims of its eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized some 7,600 state residents from 1929 to 1974.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, it might be instructive to recall that foundation’s contribution to North Carolina’s shameful past.*
If you read Mr. Schambra’s article, you will learn that a certain Frederick Osborn, a Carnegie trustee, was able to secure several grants from the Carnegie Corporation to establish a department of eugenics at the Bowman Gray (now Wake Forest) School of Medicine. The unhappy story unfolds from there.
What’s striking about the way Schambra tells this story is that he could have blamed the Carnegie Corporation for bad science—there was scientific opposition to eugenics from its very earliest days; or he could have blamed the Corporation for pandering to a trustee. Instead he blames Carnegie for seeking after the root causes of our social ills. He writes:
Why did eugenics have such an appeal to our first major modern philanthropists?
Because, as Carnegie famously argued, they believed that most previous giving had been “indiscriminate charity … spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy,” without addressing the underlying circumstances that produced such conditions.
The new philanthropies, by contrast, were animated by “a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source,” according to the words of John D. Rockefeller.
And this search for root causes, Schambra argues, is philanthropic hubris at its worst. Foundations should stop doing root causes philanthropy because—and I swear on a copy of Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth that this is essentially Schambra’s entire argument—“after a century of trying one approach after another, it would be difficult to identify a single significant social problem to the roots of which philanthropy has penetrated, thereby finally resolving it.”*
It’s an easy thing for some to wave aside philanthropy’s contributions to the Green Revolution in Mexico, to ending forced segregation in the United States, and to developing the Salk vaccine, among other efforts. “[A]fter a century of frantic and futile pursuit of ultimate answers,” argues Mr. Schambra, “it’s time to reconsider charity as a more sensible alternative.”* Yet I submit that the problem of food production in Mexico would not have been effectively addressed by providing soup kitchens for Mexican peasants. We would still have forced segregation in the United States if instead of demanding justice, our African American neighbors had collected donations to spruce up their “separate but equal” schools. And that similarly, our children might still be unprotected from polio if donors had insisted on buying crutches rather than vaccine research.
It’s true that these efforts have not ended hunger or racism or disease once and for all, but that’s not what “root causes” philanthropists have claimed.
Suppose we were to take Mr. Schambra’s message to the thousands of protestors who are now in the streets in 70 major cities and 600 communities across the country. They would be relieved to hear that the financial crisis and subsequent bailout; that the widening gap between rich and poor; that the part of our national treasure squandered on a pointless war in Iraq—that all of these social ills had no discernible causes. Finding themselves entirely outside the causal nexus, these protestors could, with good conscience, simply pack up their sleeping bags and go home.
Sorry, Bill. Like an airplane made entirely of meat, your argument just can’t get off the ground.
* June 25, 2007, op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy
It was early in the afternoon on January 26th of this year when David Kato, a Ugandan teacher and LGBT rights activist, was brutally attacked in his home by a male assailant. The attacker hit him twice on the head with a hammer then fled. Kato died en route to the hospital.
Ugandan police claimed it was a botched robbery, but Kato’s colleagues strongly suspected other motives. Kato had reported increased death threats ever since a Ugandan tabloid named Rolling Stone had published an article with the names, addresses, and photographs of 100 people it claimed were gay or lesbian, accompanied by the headline, “Hang them.” Kato, perhaps Uganda’s most prominent LGBT activist, was pictured on the front page.
Kato and other LGBT people in Uganda lived—and continue to live—in a hostile social and political climate. A draconian bill that would increase the punishment for homosexual acts was introduced in the Ugandan parliament by MP David Bahati in October 2009. Under this bill, which has broad popular support, “repeat offenders” can face life imprisonment.
Two days after his brutal murder, friends, family members, and fellow activists gathered to bury Kato. The presiding minister, for reasons known only to him and God, decided it was a good time to launch into an anti-gay sermon complete with pointed references to Sodom and Gomorrah. After activists grabbed the microphone from the offending minister, Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, who had been excommunicated by the Anglican Church of Uganda for his ministry to LGBT people, finished presiding over the funeral.
Those present at Kato’s funeral knew that Bishop Christopher had himself been cited in the infamous Rolling Stone article that called for Kato’s death. A heterosexual supporter of LGBT rights, he was pictured on its front page right next to the man he would later bury.
It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the murder of David Kato. I didn’t know him, so here I’ll add my name to the long list of people who have appropriated his death without being directly impacted by his loss.
I’ve tried to imagine what went through the mind of the man who killed him. Perhaps after seeing his victim stare in incomprehension, after striking the first blow and watching Kato hold his head in agony, the man’s anger could have—should have—subsided, the trace of a doubt should have crept into his conscience and stopped him from striking another blow. Here, present to him, the heft of a man clearly suffering, placed in the scale against some contested ideas about the proprietyof same-sex love. Here, standing or crouching in front of him, a suffering it would be pointless to deny.
I wonder at those who do in fact deny this suffering; who from their pulpits whip their flocks into the white heat of hatred; who pour contempt on the child molesters, the corrupters of youth, the destroyers of marriage, and then, as if to put all things right again, exhort their followers to hate the sin but love the sinner.
I know what drives the hammer. What drives the hammer is a lethal combination of ignorance and bigotry. It’s self-loathing, a senseless fear of contagion, a criminal disregard for the basic facts of human sexuality. What drives the hammer is a boundless priestly arrogance, the arrogance of the contemporary Pharisee who quotes Leviticus over a plate of boiled shellfish.
Here is how one of his colleagues remembered David Kato (via GayUganda):
I am at work.
Fact is, my concentration is terrible. Bits and fits, that is when I can concentrate. Seems as if everywhere I turn, I see, think, hear, know only what has happened to David.
My partner was the first to hear the news. I was in the bathroom. And, his shout made me rush out to investigate. It was then I got an sms. From someone else.
No, it did not sink in last night.
My partner was crying. Me, too hardened. Have to express my emotions in different ways. But, I was unsettled.
My partner went, with a few others, to the police in Mukono, and from there to David’s home. Where he was killed. Speculation was rife about what had happened. Yes, David was much more open than I am. He used to say that he was the first ‘out’ gay Ugandan. Indeed, I saw one documentary in which he featured, filmed at his place, which he was still building.
Sad. He built the house. Has barely used it a year. He moved in, as is common here, before the house was ready. But, that is life.
Shit. It is hard. Life, it is hard.
Times when he lived in Masaka. Was actually a head teacher there, if I remember correctly. Then he moved to Nansana, where he seemed to always have problems with the locals. He was too open as a gay man. He would drink, and challenge them. And, he opened his house to the likes of other gay people when they felt threatened at their homes. The likes of George Oundo, if I remember well. And others.
Then he got a place in Mukono, and started building his house. The house where he was brutally murdered, just yesterday.
Sigh ... nostalgia ...
Maybe for the days when he was still alive to pester us with his demands, his beliefs in what he wanted to have done. He was a doer, and, in a difficult environment, he was an achiever. With scanty resources, he did what he could, and did it fairly well.
Of course he was a human being. Cantankerous, devious, quarrelsome.
But, he was a human being, a fighter, going to the police cells to look for those accused of being gay. Going to court to stand up for our rights.
Today is time to celebrate the life of a human rights activist, whose life, that basic human right of all, was brutally cut short. Just yesterday.
I talked to David the other day, on the phone, about his hacked email. We were worried about that seeming non entity now … !
Just saw another one of those “I’m a PC” ads whose language suggests the complete identification of the consumer with his purchase. In the spirit of recent online and offline conversations, I republish this old post:
A young woman buys a pair of Calvin Kleins to shore up her sense of self worth. A middle-aged man who feels he’s trapped in a loveless marriage, spends an enormous sum on a wide-screen TV. “I really shot my wad that time!” he says, flushed with pleasure. All of us accept the intrusions of the market into our sense of meaning and identity. We’re strong enough, each of us reasons, to resist its effects.
Before we know it, our ability to buy something—anything—at two for 79 cents becomes a measure of our civic health. There are no panicked crowds at the Wal-Mart, no looters carting away pieces of the central government. We move effortlessly from bins of cut-rate flip flops to shelves of discounted ammo. We needn’t be in any great hurry. None of the true costs of our American way of life—e.g., environmental degradation, workers without decent pensions—are there to interfere with the pleasure of a low, low price.
To purchase is the verb into which every contemporary action resolves.
It might have happened in your lifetime. Not long ago, in some nondescript boardroom in Milan or on Madison Avenue, a fashion executive rose from his seat to suggest that his company produce a line of clothing whose brand should no longer be confined to a discrete label attached to an inside seam. No, he said, the company’s brand should be printed in bold letters on the garment itself, essentially turning the wearer into a walking billboard. Moreover, he suggested, the customer should pay dearly for the privilege. Another executive, a small man with sloping shoulders, sneered at the idea, saying the public was too intelligent to be duped by such a clearly cynical product line.
I can’t imagine a single area of nonprofit work that isn’t affected in some profound way by American Consumerism. Directly and indirectly it undermines all our social change efforts. It narrowly frames our actions, blinding us to the forces that keep so much of the world in misery. It engenders habits of mind that transform world-be activists and supporters into passive collectors (or consumers) of information. And it weakens our resolve to change a system from which we benefit at significant cost to people in other parts of the world and to future generations.
Here are the two basic elements of American Consumerism as I see them:
1. A radical shift in our frame of understanding and discussion. The primary shift is one from a conception of the human species as Homo sapiens, the animal that thinks and deliberates, to Homo mercatus, the creature that purchases. Thus we measure the health of the nation primarily in economic terms—our rates of consumer spending, the growth in our GDP—rather than in our knowledge of history, our fitness for self-governance, and our ability to deliberate intelligently as free citizens. In the Consumerist/Corporatist framework, the primary purpose of education is to prepare our young people for the workforce rather than for engaged citizenry. Foreign policy is designed to create and maintain “an international order in which U.S.-based business can prosper, a world of ... societies that are open to profitable investment, to expansion of export markets and transfer of capital, and to exploitation of material and human resources on the part of U.S. corporations and their local affiliates.”* Thus we topple democratically elected governments, trade with regimes that torture their citizens, and engage in other forms of barbarous behavior to guarantee the free flow of goods and profits. Domestic policy aims to keep alive the myth of the American Dream, which is essentially a dream about ownership. In this dream, the home represents not a base from which we set off to engage the world and make it better, but a place that we pack full of the crap we unceasingly purchase.
2. A weakened ability to resist Consumerist/Corporatist forces. As Chomsky writes in his latest book, Imperial Ambitions, “If you’re trying to turn people into mindless consumers so they don’t interfere with you while you’re reordering the world, you have to keep at them from infancy.” The first order of business might therefore be to undermine public education so that of the 70 percent lucky enough to graduate from high school only a few are able to locate Afghanistan on a map. Childhood is also a good time to start building brand allegiance and underscoring the idea that one can simply use the latest product to point and click one’s way to a better world. We should refuse to teach our kids media literacy—unlike other enlightened countries—so our children can grow into adults easily beguiled by advertisements as well as by the illusion of news. Some of the hard work has already been done for us: National and statewide elections long ago turned into cynical exercises in brand-building and marketing, presenting to the political consumer a narrow range of neatly packaged Candidate Products® to choose from. We don’t exercise democracy in the voting booth: We purchase a product shaped as much by polls and focus groups as the flavorless bran flakes in our cereal bowls.
Consumerism presents two great challenges for those of us who work at nonprofits and foundations, and in civil society organizations more generally. First, we are bought in—literally. This is the challenge of complicity. We benefit from a system that purchases for us some degree of comfort at significant cost to the environment and to the people who are the victims of our country’s economic imperialism.
The second challenge is one of consciousness. Many of us work locally, in this little part of the world, on education, or in health, or in the arts, and we fail to see the connections between our efforts and the broader forces that shape the intellectual and moral contexts in which we work. I would claim that we are doomed to failure, doomed to waste great wads of donor money, unless we understand these connections.
The great liberal theorist Isaiah Berlin championed what he called a negative conception of liberty, one that left fairly unconstrained the actions of citizens. The state was to remain neutral on questions regarding the ultimate Good, providing a framework of rights in which individuals would be free to pursue their own visions of the good life. He imagined, perhaps, a society of knowledgeable and engaged citizens, deliberating, arguing with one another, holding their political leaders accountable. Their deliberations would inflect the teachings in their schools, the conduct of their businesses, the prayers rising from their houses of worship. Did he ever imagine that the Great Axiological Machine—the generator and clarifier of values—would not be the polis but Madison Avenue, funded by powerful interests to increase even more their already magnificent wealth?
* Noam Chomsky: On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (1987).
So, this past Friday in Oslo, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was barred by Chinese authorities from attending the ceremony at which he would have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Here are three takes on the same non-event where concerned Westerners wrung their hands and lamented the state of human rights in China:
Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, [adds] that China [needs] to learn that with economic power [comes] social and political responsibility.
“We can to a certain degree say that China with its 1.3 billion people is carrying mankind’s fate on its shoulders,” Mr. Jagland said in a speech at the [Nobel Peace Prize] ceremony. “If the country proves capable of developing a social market economy with full civil rights, this will have a huge favorable impact on the world.”
Translation: I’m convinced we’re screwed unless we find a way to rationalize trade with the Chinese. But the human rights Liu Xiaobo is fighting for are a moral issue not an economic one. I will therefore split the baby by invoking the notion of a “social market economy,” the Middle Way between socialism and capitalism. That way we can have our almond cake and eat it too.
Getting a recalcitrant population to acquiesce to a market economy on the state’s terms is a gentleman’s game requiring a delicate touch not an iron fist. And China is being, well, gauche, n’est-ce pas?
“Today, the House of Representatives is congratulating Liu Xiaobo on the Nobel Peace Prize and sending a clear message of support for human rights and democracy in China. We do this in recognition of the importance of the relationship between China and the United States, that we have many issues where we have common ground or where should seek common ground. But all of that is better served by candor in our friendship and not ignoring sore spots.
“We continue to call for Liu Xiaobo’s immediate and unconditional release, and for the Chinese government to listen to the many Chinese citizens who are calling for human rights and freedom in China.”
Translation: I can safely refer to the most egregious abuses of human rights—the denial of basic freedoms, the jailing of thousands of dissidents and their families, and the torture of Falun Gong members—as “sore spots” because the American public isn’t paying attention and half of them wouldn’t be able to locate China on a map anyway.
So, who’s mixing the martinis?
Editor’s note: Before we move on, I need to get this off my chest: It’s a mystery to me why our leaders bother with these effete upbraidings. After all, by many accounts, our policy of constructive engagement with China has been enormously successful. Over the past several decades we’ve learned some important lessons from the Chinese about denying due process and using state-sponsored torture to strengthen national security. And while the US government does not control the media, we’ve succeeded in concentrating ownership of it into the hands of an ever-smaller fraternity of elites. China, for its part, has embraced capitalism and is deeply grateful for an American public sated by its purchases of cheap Chinese goods. Not too long ago, China Security and Surveillance Technology, a company that installs surveillance systems for the Chinese security apparatus, was the first Chinese company to join the New York Stock Exchange. According to Terence Yap, then-vice chairman and chief financial officer:
his company’s software made it possible for security cameras to count the number of people in crosswalks and alert the police if a crowd forms at an unusual hour, a possible sign of an unsanctioned protest.
Sounds like a growth industry to me, both in China and in the West, as an increasingly restive population begins to form crowds at unusual hours in unsanctioned places for allegedly nefarious purposes.
Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Dec. 25, 2009, after a Beijing court convicted him of violating Chinese law and engaging in activities aimed at overthrowing the government.
“We urge relevant U.S. lawmakers to stop their wrongdoing on this issue, change their arrogant and rude attitude and show due respect for the Chinese people and China’s judicial sovereignty,” said Jiang.
... Jiang said earlier that more than 100 countries and international organizations had expressed support for China's stance.
“Justice lies in the heart of the people,” said Jiang.
This man Liu is a convicted criminal for God’s sake!
China is betting that world leaders will be more concerned about their own hold on power than about the ultimate disposition of their immortal souls. The argument seems to have worked for at least 19 countries and sent a frisson of terror through many more, judging from the anemic statements coming out of Oslo.
Meanwhile, let's enjoy those everyday low, low prices while we still can.
IT WAS BASEBALL pioneer Satchel Paige who warned: “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”
In the wake of the midterm elections, that’s one bit of advice that President Obama would do well to follow. If his presidency is to survive, he must look forward and must begin to make changes now.
But exactly what should Obama do, and how and why? ...
Lose the strut …. The president has a way of pushing himself up on the balls of his feet as he walks. I call it “the strut,” and I suspect I’m not alone in finding it off-putting.
Hear that, you Democratic handlers? Better get busy! If you want my man to be re-elected in 2012, you had better start polishing up that Brand Obamanow. First thing you want to do is help him lose that uppity strut, that confident “I’m the President of the United States” walk that seems to be annoying so many people. Maybe try dressing him in camo and getting him a guest appearance on that eight-part mini-series TLC is donating to the Palin for President campaign. Have him shoot a large Alaskan mammal—and be sure to script him, nothing over two syllables: something like, “Gummint will never take away my right to kill me this big-ass moose.” Whatever you do, don’t let him be photographed stooping over some rabbit turd of a tarball in Prince William Sound! You dig?
Editors’ note: This article will appear in the December issue of Alliance Magazine, a respected international journal on philanthropy and social investment. Why a respectable journal would invite WCT blogger Albert Ruesga to submit his usual screed is anybody’s guess. The article will appear as part of a special feature on social justice philanthropy. To find out more, visit the Alliance Magazine website. Subscription information is available here. We kept the British spelling and orthography because we thought it looked classy ...
Pick a hundred foundations at random and examine their grantmaking guidelines, and you’ll be struck by how many of them are committed to helping low-income and otherwise marginalized communities. Programmes to alleviate hunger and eliminate homelessness; initiatives to increase access to quality healthcare and education; efforts to help immigrants integrate into their adopted countries – all these are common. Talk with those who work in the philanthropic sector and you’ll find many who’ve dedicated their careers to helping the poor. Given this significant investment of philanthropic money and effort in addressing the needs of the indigent, one might wonder why there’s a felt need for a special kind of philanthropy, a ‘social justice philanthropy’, which purportedly aims to do more for marginalized communities than typical, run-of-the-mill grantmaking.
Is it a conceptual error to append the words ‘social justice’ to the word ‘philanthropy’? Is it a redundancy, perhaps, or some kind of provocation?
If you interview those who self-identify as ‘social justice grantmakers’, you’ll notice a significant degree of dissatisfaction with philanthropy as it’s usually practised. A programme designed to assist the poor, for example, might help a few lucky families lift themselves out of poverty, but it will not generally address the factors that drive families into poverty in the first place and then keep them there. These factors include, among others, structural racism, unfair laws and just plain bigotry. Social justice grantmakers aim to go one step beyond teaching a man to fish, to borrow an old saying. They ask why so few people in this man’s community can afford to own a fishing pole; why the county incinerator is being sited in his neighbourhood, befouling his pond rather than that of his wealthier townsmen; and why he’s being taught to fish when he’s more likely to earn a living wage as an accountant or engineer.
Beyond these critiques of philanthropy-as-usual, social justice philanthropists embrace ends, practices and values that tend to set them apart from other grantmakers. To achieve a world without injustice, they begin their work with an analysis of the forces that contribute to inequities. They attempt to understand the effects of membership in oppressed classes of people, looking at their work through the lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and membership in other social categories that experience unjust treatment. Because the mechanisms of oppression sometimes appear faceless, they analyse the myriad ways in which institutional structures contribute to injustice. These structures include the policies that govern institutions, their practices, their cultures and their relationships with one another and with the communities they’re meant to serve. These grantmakers also try to understand how power in its various forms is acquired, held, and brokered in a given context. Effective social justice grantmakers work in meaningful partnership with the communities they aim to serve. They recognize that they’re ultimately accountable to these communities. In practice, this means that they will learn from them and, whenever possible, take direction from them.
The difficulties of definition
Despite these lofty aims, and despite the fact that a number of faith traditions embrace ‘social justice’ as a value, social justice philanthropy has not been universally well received. Some see in it a kind of unsavoury radicalism, a throwback to the fist-waving days of the 1960s. Others regard its champions as malcontents in the grip of an ideology. But what is social justice philanthropy really? What are its essential characteristics?
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The New World Order. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. And now, Glenn Beck’s attack on George Soros as the mastermind who seeks to take over the United States by creating a shadow cabinet, gaining control of the media, destabilizing the government, manufacturing an election crisis, and, finally, encouraging duped citizens to take to the streets.
It’s not surprising that the the mid-term elections have brought with them new intimations of elite conspiracies to control America’s minds as well as her economy. At times such as these, Noam Chomsky continues to be one of my touchstones. His greatest virtue as a social analyst, in my view, is his ability to explain the structure and actions of elite control without appealing to shadowy conspiracies. In his 1987 book, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures, he sketches a simple framework for understanding U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean:
The first principle is that U.S. foreign policy is designed to create and maintain an international order in which U.S.-based business can prosper, a world of “open societies,” meaning societies that are open to profitable investment, to expansion of export markets and transfer of capital, and to exploitation of material and human resources on the part of U.S. corporations and their local affiliates. …
A second and related principle is that an ideological system must be constructed to ensure that the population remains passive, ignorant and apathetic, and that none of these matters are understood among the educated, articulate and politically active classes in the United States or, indeed, in the world in general.
What’s interesting about this ideological system is that it has no architect, there is no cabal of puppet masters writing its secret constitution and taking a blood oath to uphold it. The system is “constructed” by human actors—sometimes acting individually, sometimes collectively—who take advantage of their power, wealth, and relationships in predictable ways to maintain their status. No other motive force is needed. The ideological system that Chomsky alludes to is simply an emergent property of the complex whole that’s the sum of all these actions. As it begins to take shape, it’s reinforced by the elites who explicitly or implicitly understand its value in maintaining elite control.
The ravings of Glenn Beck are unremarkable, coming as they do from the unofficial propagandist news organ of the conservative movement in the United States, owned by a man who has himself been accused of attempting to buy control of the American mind. While conservatives made gains in the midterm elections, they’re still smarting from the Democratic rout in 2008. There’s bound to be some plaintive grunting when one set of elites nudges another away from the trough.
We’re in little danger of secret societies overthrowing the United States government. The far greater danger lies in our failing to understand that left- or right-wing conspiracies are an explanatory extravagance; that the keys to social change are simultaneously simpler and more complex than many of us realize.