When I listened to NPR, the thing that I liked best also had something alien about it. It was a mantra that was read out between the programmes by a man I imagined as an Asian American, if he wasn't actually a Vulcan. "This program" said the robot voice "has been made possible by grants from The Annenberg Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation". Despite the neutral tone, there seemed to be a satisfyingly human message in there. "Fuck off, conservatives, we have liberal billionaires," it seemed to say. The more I heard this mantra, the more satisfying I found it. In the end it seemed to me to be a kind of poem full of rich dead people who wanted to change the world. It was weirdly moving.
This morning, prompted by a discussion about NPR on a message board, I decided to look into how a typical foundation comes into existence. Who were these "rich dead people"? I chose the MacArthur Foundation to research.
"John Donald MacArthur (1897-1978) was one of the three wealthiest men in America at the time of his death, and was sole owner of the nation's largest privately held insurance company. In the 1960s," says the Foundation website, "Mr. MacArthur's attention turned to real estate and development. He conducted his business at a table in the coffee shop of the Colonnades Beach Hotel, in Palm Beach Shores, Florida. He owned the hotel, and he and his wife lived in a modest apartment overlooking a parking lot... Catherine T. MacArthur (1909-1981) was one of five children born to Irish immigrants who had settled on the South Side of Chicago. Her father was active in Democratic politics in the city."
The MacArthurs sound like "worldly ascetics" in the classic Max Weber style. The website outlines the mission of the foundation they established like this:
"The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is a private, independent grantmaking institution dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition. MacArthur has awarded more than $3 billion in grants since it began operations in 1978 , and today has assets of more than $4 billion. Annual grantmaking totals approximately $185 million."
There you have it. 19th century-style philanthropy by people who did very well out of capitalism and want, in a patrician sort of way, to help the kinds of poor people they once were themselves, but don't essentially want to change the structure of the system which allowed them to accumulate their billions.
Here are some of the highlights of the MacArthur Foundation's presentational video. I watched it so you don't have to.
1. It emerges that MacArthur was incredibly mean, so mean he didn't even spend anything on himself. He certainly didn't have any particular liberal mission or ideological orientation. He just needed something to do with the billions he managed to accumulate. He said "I've made the money, it's your job to figure out how to spend it."
2. The MacArthur Foundation claims to be "thinking outside the box", neither left nor right, Republican nor Democrat. Yet their positions (a woman's right to choose, supporting the International Criminal Court, ecology, concern for the ageing, and the study of poor neighbourhoods in Chicago) are all broadly Democratic ones. At one point we see a shot of a Human Rights Watch publication exposing arbitrary detention and torture. You can almost see Blair and Bush flinching.
3. Outgoing head of World Bank Wolfensohn testifies to the Foundation's sterling work investing in Russian human capital, saying "The World Bank, together with the MacArthur Foundation, is building on the intellectual strengths they already had in the Soviet system as Russia joins the new world system." Hard to imagine his successor teaming with the liberal foundation or crediting anything to the Soviet system.
4. The MacArthur Foundation's president says (over shots of NPR headquarters) "Institutions matter because they endure. Individuals come and go." The main problem he sees currently is "the increasing disparity between rich and poor". Which is ironic, since immensely unfair concentration of wealth is the sole reason for the Foundation's existence.
Big Bird Meets Cash Cows is a Conservative News article which says "ouch" and "stop it" about the work of the foundations, NPR and PBS:
"There is an important moral case to be made that public broadcasting as we know it has outlived its time. The proliferation of broadcast outlets can bring a wide range of political and cultural viewpoints to the airwaves. By contrast, PBS seems stuck in a programming rut with a moderate liberal bias. For every mainstream Ken Burns blockbuster there's a Frontline expose of man-made chemicals destroying life on the planet. Worse yet, there are the self-help marathons and specials masquerading as public-spirited "cultural" programming. Why should taxpayers or even private donors subsidize this peculiar melange?"
The thing that concerns me about this is the mealy-mouthed failure of spokesmen for the MacArthur Foundation, for example, to say they have an ideologically-rooted program. Charity is good, of course, but it's a poor second to fixing the primary systems which allow inequalities, and sometimes serves merely to perpetuate and do PR for the iniquitous system. There's also the fact that the very Protestant "good works" carried out are not necessarily good science when they're science, or good art when they fall in the aesthetic field, like the photographer who's documenting Kurdistan "in the shadow of history". It's always this pompous universalistic humanism that emerges, with its ideology that "this is not ideology, this is creativity and human rights for the good of all mankind". Then again, a lot of the work is indisputably important, a step in the right direction. Or is it? Didn't we decide the other day that the "intentional fallacy" applies just as well to political "authorship" as to writing? It doesn't matter what the author intended, what matters is results. Mightn't a program with liberal aims end up helping conservatives just as easily as a program with conservative aims might end up helping liberal causes? And just what is "lasting improvement in the human condition"? Couldn't the foundation just give everyone in America a free washlet toilet?