2 min read
My review of Olivier Zunz's Philanthropy in America: A History, is now up on The American Conservative's website.

I think Zunz's scholarly synthesis is impressive. All credit to him for that. But I think the story he tells is too simple, too one-sided. For example, it skips lightly over what was lost in the transition from charity to philanthropy, and in the nationalization of giving:

Another social change wrought by the new philanthropy was what we might call the de-localization of how Americans thought about their charitable obligations.

Zunz makes clear that partisans of the new philanthropy had contempt for mere charity. Insetad, in “doing good” they sought to make a “financial investment,” a “capitalist venture in social betterment, not an act of kindness as understood in Christianity.” This is vitally important: the new philanthropy was created self-consciously as an improvement on and alternative to Christian caritas, or love.

The problem was that few Americans seemed ready to jettison old-fashioned ideas about whom they were to help and how. Americans’ giving habits needed to undergo a “drastic change.” The fundamental impediment was that “Americans normally contributed to local charities,” a wasteful and ignorant habit that did little to advance universal human values or what Zunz calls “the systematic search for the common good” (a term he never defines).

The solution lay in the tools of mass marketing. In the first decades of the 20th century, the new philanthropy worked assiduously to convince the common man and woman not to save money, as they were wont to do, but to invest it in the common good by giving to national groups and causes—for example, fighting tuberculosis—administered by professionals.

For this strategy to work, it was necessary to nurture a national consciousness—this is the era in which the United States went from a plural to a singular noun—by stigmatizing localism and all particularist identity markers of class, ethnicity, and religion through an “Americanization movement.” The newly available tools of mass marketing, already perfecting the art of manufacturing and manipulating desire, were ideally suited for such a task. One might see this as an ambiguous development. Zunz does not.

I also judge very differently than does Zunz the impact the big foundations had in bringing about the secularization of the academy, in leading morally objectionable crusades like that for eugenics, and in engaging in the uniquely maddening cultural imperialism of the bureaucratic do-gooder.

The entire review is here...

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