A few weeks ago I wrote about a problem that arises when generosity is kept neatly and conveniently aloof from the means that make generosity possible. I suggested that philanthropy can be a compromised and compromising affair when the gifts given are ill-gotten in the first place.
In thinking more about this I was reminded of a passage in a new book titled The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession, by David Bosworth (Front Porch Books, 2014). It is an elegant and intelligent book I cannot recommend emphatically enough.
Writing about the movie industry’s ability “to stage a convincing pretense of perpetual innocence,” Bosworth compares almost in passing the profitability of cinematic sexual allure to a problem that bedevils philanthropy:
[J]ust as the rapacity of greed was frequently concealed in modernizing America by the fig leaf of philanthropy (the more money given, the better the person, no matter how his money had been earned), Eros in these older movies was often disguised by a saintly costume of chaste concern.
I leave aside what Bosworth is up to in this section of his book (as it happens, making a case against Ronald Reagan, who “enlisted as an enthusiastic participant in staging this pretense” of chaste concern) to draw attention to this apt and felicitous image of the fig leaf.
How is it that, unlike the deity walking in the garden in the cool of the day, demanding of that first fig-leafed pair how exactly they came by the knowledge of their nakedness, most of us seem to be impressed by the fig leaves but inexplicably incurious about what’s behind them? And since when does a lump sum cover a multitude of sins?
I suspect that we who bear no resemblance to the demanding God in this story are duped by the fig leaf because of our dazzling capacity, especially in our economic accounting, to keep wealth neatly and conveniently aloof from its means and sources. (Previously I instanced James B. Duke, “philanthropist,” who grew rich by ruining farmers he never laid eyes on.) We are also better at adding up the deposits than we are at subtracting the debits of any given account. True costs don’t interest us as much as interest does. (Costs are for people who haven’t learned to externalize.) Even our very living arrangements, marked principally by present goods that have come from afar, are designed to conceal connections that, if known, might actually horrify us. So even as we, the ungodlike, have whatever it is we have rightfully—because in our economy paying for a thing discharges all economic responsibility—so the ultra-wealthy are rightfully ultra-wealthy, and when they’re kind to the less fortunate it’s very impressive. It’s really something. Look at all those commas and zeros.
Bosworth’s language bears repeating: too often philanthropy is a fig leaf used to cover the rapacity of greed. Not bib overalls, but a fig leaf; not industriousness, but the rapacity of greed.
Shortly after The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America was published Bosworth gave an interview for the Boisi Center at Boston College. In it he reprised the image:
In the past, philanthropy has been the fig leaf that has covered for the multiple sins of the corporate sector. That, clearly, is no longer sufficient. We need a dramatic reformation of these large economic institutions that now dominate and corrupt our democracy. . . . Enormous national and multi-national corporations have been co-opting the authority of democratic government, even as they reject the social responsibilities that normally attend it.
And the dangers are personal as well as political: “where all economic progress is presumed to be unproblematically good, we’re expected to slave like Sisyphus and consume like Falstaff. That’s not a peaceful or plausible route to achieve the good life.”
Bosworth is far from suggesting top-down solutions. He’s not suggesting (for example) that a redistribution of wealth would obviate the need for fig leaves. He’s smart enough to know that “redistribution” implies a distributor (or redistributor), and that that kind of talk gets you nowhere. (Those on the Left, who love the language of redistribution, would give everything to the permanently unemployable [or aggrieved], which is a way of telling them to go to hell; those on the Right, who hate the language of redistribution, would give everything to the permanently militarized [or corporatized], which is a way of telling other people to go to hell.) Bosworth is suggesting something else altogether:
There have been two main versions of modernity in political governance, and each has imagined itself to be “scientific” in character, borrowing from the authority of the physical sciences and insisting that it can be applied to the social realm. In my view, that assumption is a very dangerous one, inviting the arrogance of utopian certainty into human affairs where, instead, a disciplined humility ought to reign. The catastrophic failure of communism (aka “scientific socialism”) is a cautionary tale that we in the West, America especially, have completely misread. The radical capitalism we boostered in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse (which might be aptly called “scientific capitalism”) is also delusionary and, as the market meltdown of 2008 clearly demonstrated, inherently unstable.
Bosworth worries about a rational materialism that supposes it can solve and therefore eliminate the boom-bust cycle we were assured had been solved before the crash of 2008—a confidence that also supposes it can bring history to its much anticipated and happy end. (Solving life, Wendell Berry reminds us, is but another way of giving up on it. It is an act of despair.) Such cultish faith in progress, Bosworth suggests, will also usher in what T. S. Eliot called “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good,” including “those liberal universities and newer philanthropies that now focus so fiercely on polishing their ‘brand.’”
Will religion help? “Any possible spiritual resistance to our age’s unrepentant materialism has been greatly weakened by the popularity of a so-called prosperity theology that is little more than Mammonism in pious disguise.”
To the world of flowing money all of this is prescient, cautionary, and necessary language. Adam supposed he needn’t be good so long as there were fig leaves available. He was wrong.
But he also learned in short order that an age of opulence and abundance and readily available fig leaves could come to a quick end. Fig leaves could be got, but not otherwise than by the sweat of his brow.
Or, to put it plainly, it is one thing to speak of philanthropy and its means, as I did a few weeks ago. It is quite another thing to speak of wealth and its sources, as I am endeavoring to do now and will again in the next installment. The era of rapacious greed could come to an end, and not only for want of fig leaves to hide it from view. If philanthropy is the giving of artificial wealth—that is, of paper money—and if it is given without regard for the real wealth of the world, by which I mean the limited natural stock of earthly goods on which the artificial wealth is based—and this necessarily includes topsoil, clean ground water, rich well-managed forests, breathable air, and (in our peculiar moment) cheap energy, apart from which life, including philanthropic life, is impossible—if all this obtains, then philanthropy too will come to an end. Let philanthropy therefore give (as Hollywood never has) a good accounting of its chaste concern. Let it drop the fig leaf and answer the deity walking in the garden in the cool of the day, however despoiled the garden may be by a greed too rapacious to be covered by anything.