Posted in Politics

Idealism, pragmatism, and the dilemma of the would-be philanthropist

This week I’ve received several fundraising solicitations, as I do pretty much every week. I give what I can, but the warm glow of altruism generally only lasts until the next solicitation from the same organization comes along. I received an e-mail from Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, asking me to contribute money to his pal Bob Kerrey’s campaign. I received actual snail mail from Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign expressing their concern that I had not renewed my membership yet. And I’m not sure what to do about any of them. The thing is, they’re not unworthy causes, empirically; obviously, I’ve contributed to them before. But there are a couple of stumbling blocks for me.

Bob Kerrey used to be the governor of the state of Nebraska (where I lived from ages 16 to 22), and he left the governor’s office 7 months before I moved there. Two years later, he became one of our senators, and I was in the audience the morning he came down to the UNL campus to announce his (short-lived) candidacy for President in 1992. He’s a Democrat, liberal enough (for me), and Al Franken is right: we liberal types need more allies in Congress. The man is also a Vietnam vet, a Medal of Honor winner, and a former Navy SEAL. I have, as far as I know, no objection the man being in the Senate per se; it’s being a Senator from Nebraska that is the sticking point for me.

You see, Bob Kerrey has not lived in Nebraska in a decade; he’s been living and working in New York City with his family. It seems he’s eligible to run for his former Nebraska seat because he owns property in Nebraska, but I have to question his fitness for representing Nebraskans, when he is, for all intents and purposes, a New Yorker now. I’ve lived in Arizona for 14 years now; I couldn’t tell you what the issues of concern are for Minnesotans, my former neighbors, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to pretend I could represent those concerns.  I’ve never been impressed with carpetbagger candidates who run for offices in places they’re not really from, or haven’t been from in a long time, because of a technicality or what seems like political expediency; I’m still not impressed even when the candidate in question is someone that, under different circumstances, I’d be just fine with.  It smacks of playing the system for gain that will not accrue to the citizens.

Furthermore, and my problem with the other solicitations, is that I’m rather disgusted with the “money trumps all” aspect of politics in this nation. Or any nation for that matter. Beyond the staggering corporate overreach brought on by Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, it annoys me that all anyone wants from me, be it political action group or specific candidates, is my money. It is, indeed, the only speech I have. Every letter and e-mail I get tells me how Planned Parenthood cannot protect me and my sisters from crazed Republicans who don’t think I should have control over my own body unless I give them more money to fight the good fight, and that the HRC cannot keep the momentum going in the completely nonsensical-yet-vicious battle for total civil rights for all citizens without a check from me, and that candidates that might have a chance to make me, personally, feel represented in my government for a change don’t have a chance at all against the big money machines of incumbents and corporate lapdogs unless I send all I can.

So on the one hand, I consider not contributing, because if I intend to be the change I want to see in the world, don’t I have to stop contributing money to the machine that spends obscene amounts of money to get people into office, and then to get those people to listen to us, money that could actually do some real good if it were applied to real problems Americans have instead of to paying for commercials and airtime and crappy campaign signs that litter our corners? If I continue contributing to a corrupt system, then I am complicit in its inevitable continuation, am I not? If you keep doing what you’re doing…

But on the other hand, this is the system we have, for better or worse. (Okay, let’s get real: it’s for worse or worst.) Money talks, more loudly than anything else. And in fact, it does cost a lot for a candidate to win and for advocacy groups to keep advocating. So if I don’t contribute to those causes and candidates that align with my values, and people with values antithetical to my own keep contributing to their candidates, how does anything get better? A stand on principle is all well and good, but how can it be anything but a Pyrrhic victory, ultimately?

It’s the age-old question of whether you work within the system to change things, accepting that large systems have a pretty serious survival instinct when it comes to maintaining status quo, or do you try to dismantle it from outside by refusing to aid and abet something you know to be problematic, accepting that being outside of the system means you are probably in the minority, and as such, have a high likelihood of being entirely ineffectual, if your effort is noticed at all?

Change in people is slow, change in populations slower yet; how does one change the system while still needing to live, thrive, and succeed within the largely unchanged system in the meantime? If we are practical, hedging our bets, do we not enable the very things we wish to change? But if we refuse to participate in a process that we believe to be inherently unfair, when there is no alternative system, do we slit our own throats? Must all revolutions have martyrs? And don’t there have to be a whole helluva lot of them for it to make any difference?

My not contributing to Bob Kerrey, or PP, or HRC, will not really make any difference to the functioning of the world, or even to those particular efforts, because there are plenty of folks who will; it will be business as usual. And that said, my contributing to them probably won’t make much difference either, because my $50 donation is relatively meaningless in the face of the millions of dollars the Koch Brothers spread around. Scott likes to say that there’s an extremely fine line between doing something and doing nothing, and while I always fight the urge to agree with him, the fact that there’s an internal battle at all is telling. Perhaps carefully cultivated avoidance of the whole works is the only sane action for a person to take. Apathetic dismissal would, if you could manage it, be a blessing.

Problem is, hope–hope for the possibility of change, of enlightenment, of an increased generosity of spirit, of greater wisdom in our dealings with our fellow humans–is a stubborn thing.

Do you struggle with this?  What do you do about it?



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Idealism, pragmatism, and the dilemma of the would-be philanthropist

  1. I struggle with it a lot. Maybe there’s an answer in the quote from Talmud that you have below on this page…Keep doing what you can, because it’s all you can do. Then, whatever the outcome, you’ve done the work YOU need to do!

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s