Tag Archives: American oligarchs

Journeyman oligarch: remembering Scalia

Most everyone here has heard about the death of Antonin Scalia, right? He was the right-winger’s right-winger on the US Supreme Court, the guy who’d voice the outrageous opinions. With Scalia in the background snarling about gay sex (not even gay marriage, but gay sex— he was against legalizing it), torture, and the death penalty, his vanilla right-winger colleagues got to look sane and decent. In the interests of balance and fairness, I should add, my smart, progressive lawyer daughter describes Scalia’s legal reasoning as very high quality– apparently he was not stupid. Stupid or not, though, Scalia did his best to push American morals enforcement back toward the bronze age. Fortunately the tides of history were mostly against him, and he didn’t get very far with that project.

But it’s another story when you think about what he helped do to our public life– because he was highly effective in helping normalize the gift-exchange lifestyle that’s come to define our power elites, liberal and right-wing alike. That’s the system that allows our public servants to cavort with the billionaires, despite earning only six-figure incomes; the truly wealthy supply the merely powerful with golf trips, hunting trips, high-end dinners, private jet travel, and on and on. The wealthy don’t necessarily get favorable laws and legal decisions as payback for their generosity, but at least their phone calls get returned.

Most of our public institutions have various rules and oversight procedures that at least complicate these gift exchanges, requiring say that public business be discussed in the course of visiting some high-end resort, or that speeches be made, or computer factories visited. But because the Supreme Court is the ultimate tribunal for all our national squabbles, nobody gets to tell its judges what to do– and Scalia delighted in reminding us that he didn’t care what the rest of us thought. His best-known escapade came in 2004, when he went duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheyney, whose big case the Supreme Court had just agreed to hear. (Of course everyone traveled to the hunting grounds by private jet, at the invitation of some billionaire petroleum guy; that wasn’t even the issue that got people riled up.) In response to questions, Scalia assured everyone that “I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned” because of the hob-nobbing.

He was true to that lifestyle right up to the end– he died in bed, in the course of a paid-for junket to an enormous hunting ranch in Texas, owned by a manufacturing magnate and accessible (of course) only by private jet.  Sadly, the rumors that he died with a pillow over his head seem to be unfounded– really, couldn’t the Powers that Rule the Universe have given us a leather-clad gay prostitution scene gone wrong? On the other hand, apparently the folks on this hunting junket were mostly members of something called the St Hubertus Society, which the Washington Post describes as a “worldwide, male-only society” whose members “wear dark-green robes emblazoned with a large cross” and a snappy Latin motto. So at least the kinky, guys-off-by-themselve-in-pseudo-medieval-costumes overtones weren’t entirely absent.

The awfulness in stories like these is truly multi-dimensional. There’s the humiliating spectacle of a smart, accomplished, famous guy depending for his pleasures on the kindness of oil patch billionaires. There’s the hypocrisy of mixing luxury duck hunting with reverence for Christian values, which Scalia ostentatiously endorsed; in Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, in fact, all hunting is classed as “a thing unworthy to be used of free men,” because it makes them indifferent to others’ suffering. There’s the assertive inequality, what with all those exclusive resorts and private jets, and even the Donald-Trump-lite tackiness of it all– if a Supreme Court Justice is going to sell out, shouldn’t it be for something a little more classy?

Usually folks toward my end of the political spectrum tend to credit Scalia with one redeeming feature: apparently he was a good friend, and his friendships didn’t track his politics. Famously, he was “best buddies” (her words) with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, generally viewed as the court’s top liberal. He was also “hunting buddies” (in the words of the Atlantic Monthly) with Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed to the Supreme Court in 2010; she’s less liberal than Ginsburg but way to Scalia’s left. (As a footnote, who knew we had not one but two big game hunters on the Supreme Court?)

Should the rest of us applaud all this good-natured collegiality? Usually we’re encouraged to, because warmth across the political divide offers hope in an otherwise-toxic political environment. It’s supposed to show that good sense and reason can prevail even when people disagree.

But I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the collegial warmth thing, as readers here probably picked up long ago. I mean, I’m all in favor of max politesse in the day-to-day, but actual friendship, in the face of disagreement over the death penalty, torture, and sexual freedom?? Actual lives are at stake in these matters, right?  If that’s not important enough to strain a friendship, what would be?   Klan membership?

My suspicion is, the gift exchange culture and the collegiality are just two more sides of our contemporary oligarchical culture. Within the oligarchy, you’re all friends.  Friends help one another out with the occasional hunting vacation, and they socialize without causing troublesome rifts. Good-natured ideological banter is fine, even pleasing– it shows our diversity, the vigor of our democratic debates. But treating torture or the death penalty as life-and-death, friendship-ending matters– that’s going too far.  It would just make everyone uncomfortable.

Scalia’s explicit moral crusades were mostly a bust– but in the work of oligarchy-building, he leaves behind a solid journeyman’s legacy.


Telescopic philanthropy and the modern university

Over the last year, I’ve offered occasional thoughts about the role of philanthropy in today’s world, looking mostly at the billionaires (like Bill Gates and George Soros) doing the giving. It seemed–actually it still does– weird and interesting that these guys would concern themselves with how historians and other educators spend their time, and I offered a few possible explanations.

But lately I’ve been more interested in the other side of that story, meaning the enthusiasm that some professors are starting to show about big-money philanthropy. It’s an enthusiasm that says some interesting things about how the university and its humanist professors fit into the twenty-first-century world.

My example is Peter Singer, who’s probably today’s most visible philanthropy-fan professor. Singer’s a world-famous Australian philosopher, who’s taught at Princeton since 1999 (Wikipedia quotes a colleague describing him as “almost certainly the best-known and most widely read of all contemporary philosophers”). He’s been pushing philanthropy for a long time, but lately it’s become his primary focus, and he’s signed on to a view called “effective altruism.” The basic idea is: all over the world, there are people in life-and-death need, and the rest of us have a duty to do everything we can to rescue them. “Everything we can” includes giving as much as we can, but also being smart about it, by making our dollars go as far as possible (that’s the “effective” side of the equation). That includes selecting charities that function efficiently, with low overhead costs and modest offices, and orienting our altruism to the truly desperate– sending food to starving Africans counts way more than (say) endowing book purchases at the local library.

Most interesting of all, those on the donor side have a duty to organize their own lives for maximum altruistic effectiveness. Singer offers an example from his Princeton classrooms, that of a brilliant young student who (influenced by Singer’s teaching) decided against a fast-track career in academic philosophy and instead went to Wall Street; he reasoned that all the extra money he’d earn there would make him a far more effective altruist. Singer has only praise for this career switch, which will allow the young man “to save a hundred lives” in his first year or two out of school, way more than would have been possible on a professor’s salary. Career choices like these (Singer assures us) form part of “an exciting new movement” that’s sweeping elite universities world wide; they show philosophy “returning to its Socratic role” of shaking up our ideas about the good life, dramatically transforming students’ lives, and making “the world a better place.”

From all this glossy talk of innovation and excitement, you wouldn’t know there are important criticisms of Singer’s approach, but they’re out there. As numerous observers point out, big philanthrophy undermines democratic values, by giving individual donors decision-making power over what society as a whole gets. It reinforces social hierarchies, by dividing the world between big-hearted givers and weakling takers and (as in Singer’s version) by giving extra moral status to big money. It tends to destroy public institutions, as their survival increasingly depends on pleasing a few wealthy donors. And it often has more directly destructive consequences. Sending free American food to Africa sounds great, but if it destroys African farming (how do farmers stay afloat when NGOs distribute free food in the marketplace?) and subsidizes American agribusiness (from whom NGOs purchase the “free” food), is it really helpful? Is this about “saving lives” or “clearing out small farmers so that multi-nationals can step in?”

Singer’s Wall-Street-bound student offers an extreme form of this last problem, because whatever his exact big business role, it would take some deep calculations to know whether his donations counter-balance the harm he may doing– especially since some of that harm won’t show up for many years. Do his investments contribute to climate change, for instance, or to carcinogenic industrial processes? Do his clients use the money he makes for them to lobby against health and safety regulations, or against old age pensions? It may be two or three generations before we know the costs and benefits, even if we add up only the lives saved and lost.

I’ll leave the list of criticisms there, since I find them so compelling (for a more complete and careful discussion, see this terrific article by the philosopher Matthew Snow). Instead, I want to think a little about what Singer and “effective altruism” tell us about the modern university and its culture.

First, we might note the strange combination of qualities that Singer’s story attributes to the university itself. There’s an element of professorial megalomania in the account– Singer presents himself as a new Socrates, shaking up philosophy and redirecting the polis, and he sees world-improvement starting in university classrooms, rather than among, say, the poor themselves. But there’s also some startling self-abasement in his story, because its real heroes are the wonderful undergraduates just passing through the university, on their way to making money and improving the world. Think of it as an updated version F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s glamor-Princeton, now featuring ethically sensitized young people rather than Jazz Age partiers. The professors function as their life-coaches, and the other figures in the university– graduate students, librarians, researchers, and the like– don’t make it into the picture.

Then there’s the strange historical shallowness in Singer’s account– meaning, it offers no hint that debate about philanthropy has been raging for about 250 years, and in that time the nay-sayers have landed some pretty good punches. The great nineteenth-century novels are full of philanthropists, most of them horrifying. (Think Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose “telescopic philanthropy” centers on sending colonists to Africa while her own family sinks into ruin and degradation, or Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Brocklehurst, bullying impoverished young women.) Even earlier, the French thinker/politician Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot pointed out how silly and self-serving most charitable donations look to later generations. In the 1960s and 1970s, Michel Foucault explored the structural linkages between philanthropy and power, showing that even the slam-dunk do-gooder projects have come with very heavy baggage.

Now, presumably a smart, learned guy like Peter Singer knows all this, and he may reason that it’s not his job to argue against his own views– that’s for those of us who disagree with him. But whatever full disclosure duties he may have, we can still notice the peculiar firmness of his non-historicity. Here’s another world-class professor implicitly telling the public that the past doesn’t matter, we don’t need to think about it, let’s just focus on the bright, shiny future.

Which leads to a last peculiarity in Singer’s story, the politics. Singer presents himself as a leftist, and he was even a Green Party candidate back in Australia. Clearly he’s desperately concerned about the state of the world today, and really wants to improve people’s lives. Yet when we’ve stripped it down, “effective altruism” looks an awful lot like a celebration of capitalism and the well-paid folks who make it run. It’s a deeply flawed system, seems to be Singer’s position, but it’s not going away, and so we have to work with it.

As I’ve said before, the neo-cons who fume about tenured radicals in the universities can probably relax.