Loving the world to death

I've developed an uneasy ambivalence

H. Widayat, Ikan Laut Dalam [Deep sea fish], 1987. via Rabih Alameddine

Between Epstein and the Sackler family, there’s probably more scrutiny being placed on philanthropy and the donor class now than in decades—the sector’s flown under the radar for way too long. Along with the indispensable work of investigative journalists hunting down abuses and dirty money, I also think it’s important to grapple with questions of what philanthropy is, why we subsidize it, and if there is a form of it that serves society better than the problematic version we have now.

Although I wrote it before the Epstein story blew wide open, I had a pretty lengthy essay run at the end of last week in which I broached some of those big picture questions head on in a way I hadn’t really done before. I like how it turned out and it’s also one of the best-received things I’ve written on the subject. So this week, I’m posting a chunk of that essay—the introduction and then the very ending. But you know if you want to read all the words in the middle, you can do so here.


Generosity and Impact Aren’t Enough. Let’s Judge Philanthropy on How Well it Shifts Power

I’ve developed an uneasy ambivalence toward philanthropy over the years I’ve been writing about it. It stems from a kind of inner conflict over the fact that nearly every case of philanthropic impact, even impact I may celebrate or encourage, is also a case of concentrated wealth exerting its power. 

I get the feeling many people who cover or work in the sector have a similar sort of queasiness. Following the death of his hometown benefactor Gerry Lenfest, philanthropy scholar Benjamin Soskis wrote about his own conflicted feelings, describing the American attitude toward philanthropy as a “tincture of gratitude and apprehension.” Or as David Callahan writes of covering the sector in The Givers, “I’ve come to feel whiplashed between hope and fear.” Others prominent critics like Anand Giridharadas are less ambivalent, and as the New Gilded Age grinds on, there’s been a warranted backlash against wealthy donors. 

And yet, these pools of wealth remain, as do the many, varied foundations and donors trying to put them to public good. In spite of our reservations, philanthropy large and small fuels civil society, our cultural institutions, and often social change, as it has in some form throughout history. 

This presents a dilemma, for me, at least. How can we appreciate and encourage “good philanthropy,” while simultaneously sounding the alarm about the dangers of concentrated wealth and its influence? Are those two sentiments in conflict, and do they have to be?  

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know. I do know that the dangers are very real, as real as our weakened public sector and tax base. And some days, I think we’d be better off scrapping the entire charitable tax deduction, or at least vastly changing it. But after much writing and reading on the subject, I’ve come to think that part of this conflict, and a possible way to reconcile it, lies in how we judge what makes good philanthropy. 

Namely, we often gauge the success of philanthropists by some combination of generosity and impact (by impact, I mean achieving intended, measurable outcomes). I increasingly think we ought to, if not completely replace those yardsticks, supplement them by considering as a measure of true philanthropy a funder’s success at shifting power out of its own hands and into others. This could involve funding program areas that challenge plutocracy, putting into place more diverse and participatory governing structures or simple grantmaking practices that yield power and control to recipients instead of funders. 

I’m not so naive that I think those in the sector might read this and throw out their playbooks. And I know there’s a large contingent in philanthropy that believes wealth does, in fact, entitle them to more power. This is also admittedly far from a fully baked solution. It’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario in which someone is generous, impactful, and shifts power, but the outcome is still quite bad. 

But it’s a framing that I think has merit, and feels more like what philanthropy ought to be than it often is. Maybe looking to a kind of generosity of power instead of money can bring some moral and practical clarity to using existing pools of wealth to make the world a better, more just place.

Read the whole thing here. OK now back to the rest of the newsletter.


Make it a Blockbuster night.

Links!

  • “I will reckon with a gathering sense that regular travelers like me are loving the world to death. And that perhaps this love might be better expressed by letting it be.”

  • As wealthy residents flee vulnerable coastal real estate, low-income communities on higher ground are sent packing. Also, Flagstaff, Arizona has seen an influx of people fleeing Phoenix.

  • There was a bigot parade in Boston and when the DA Rachael Rollins dropped charges against counter-protestors, a judge refused. It was a clear overreach and an attack on Rollins, who ran on prosecuting fewer minor crimes.

  • The time Roxane Gay ate an edible, tied herself to her bed with a sheet, and called 911 to tell them she was dying.

  • A bar near me that first opened in 1882 is closing down because the neighborhood has become too expensive. The liquor license was sold for $455,000 for a “megarestaurant” that will open up in the Seaport. Cool city!

  • A piece of cocktail party wisdom about free will has been debunked but don’t get all excited that doesn’t mean you have free will.

  • Blockbuster Video was one of my first jobs in high school, and I can confirm, it was not that great. I did, however, love that job as I got to rent movies for free. One time I spilled a giant soda on a credit card machine and my boss was pretty cool about it.


Listening

Tacocat is one of my favorite bands and they are currently on tour in Europe which you can follow along on Instagram if you want. Here is my favorite song on their latest record.


Jamie and I went on a little vacation to the Hudson Valley where we saw all kinds of farm animals, went on a nice hike, and ate a lot of very good food. It’s a beautiful place. It is also like a lot of aging East Coast vacation destinations where there are these random pockets of ruin. We drove by a huge old resort that looked like it had been abandoned forever but turned out it closed just under a year ago. It was built in the 1950s, and “once was one of the grand Borscht belt resorts of the Catskills.” It has seen tough times since then, including a tragic drowning, and just 11 months out of business it looked like the earth was already trying to take it back.

That Roxane Gay story reminds me of the last time I ate an edible and two hours later was frozen on the couch asking Jamie to touch my foot so I could be certain I still had a body. Readers, I’m here to tell you that you too still have a body. If you aren’t sure, ask someone dear to you to touch your foot, and if you’re alone maybe tie yourself to your bed and hold on tight.

Tate

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