Choking on success

I want to talk today about a major problem with idealism and activism.  This is not partisan.  It’s true about human beings in general, both on the Left and on the Right, and between.  It’s about causes, and powers.

Causes adopt whatever tools, whatever powers, they think are necessary to succeed– which also must be available, of course, and which the cause has no qualms about using.   This is a pretty straightforward and non-controversial statement, right?

Now, it’s a curious way of looking at it, but causes, and powers, have an odd symbiotic relationship.  Power for its own sake is an actor too.  It wants to continue to get to act and to be powerful.  Causes use the powers to try to win, of course.   But powers, in turn, use the causes to justify themselves.  People who enjoy exercising powers use the causes, the idealism, to defend themselves from rational attacks upon the use of the power for its own sake.

What happens, though, when the causes succeed?  An imbalance.  A cause is an argument, a push, for a different “normal”.  When causes succeed, they commit suicide.  Or, if you prefer, pupate.  A successful cause is no longer a cause.  Revolutions metamorphose into institutions.  The new institution is now reality, for other causes—including, in activist revanchism, the cause of the old reality—to push against.

Where, then, does that leave the powers which were so codependent with the cause?  The powers, reluctant to find a new rationalizing cause unless absolutely forced to, push the idea that the cause has not actually succeeded.  Communism has not actually been vanquished.  Satan’s wiles are eternal.  The enemies of Peace, Justice and Freedom (TM) are neverending.  Sound familiar?  There’s always some new way people can argue that the cause’s goals haven’t actually been achieved, so that they continue to get to exercise the powers despite opposition both from the outside and in their own consciences.  They redefine the goals.  They redefine the words.  They demonize questioners.  And over time, the tail wags the dog.  Power for its own sake becomes the driving force, with a veneer of idealism as combined camouflage and shield.

This risk is age-old and perennial.  Charities, especially those publicized and popularized by the media in some form, become brands, and brands get put to use to become major businesses.  The CEOs of major charities get paid six figures.

Here’s an example.  The cause founded by Father Flanagan, in Omaha in 1917– Boys Town, to care for orphans– was popularized by a 1938 movie with Spencer Tracy.  By the 1960s it had become a major charity hog, with far more money coming in than was necessary to care for the pretty small number of orphans under its care.

The Monsignor was asked why they were constantly fundraising.

“We’re so deep in debt all the time,” he said.

Which was, needless to say, untrue to a shocking degree.  Its net worth was in fact over two hundred million dollars.  It took Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism by the Omaha Sun to break this major scandal in 1973, forcing the power to stop feeding itself so much and to return the focus to the cause.

Here’s a second example.

Not long before the Sun won its Pulitzer, one Morris Dees, whose marketing genius had made him a millionaire, founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was a good cause which did good work, such as supplying lawyers to poor Southern people on Death Row, and integrating all-white institutions.  The Ku Klux Klan was its main ostensible opponent– and main moneymaker.  Before long, though, the tail began to wag the dog, just like with Boys Town.

An article by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine in 2000 explained how this all worked.  The SPLC went after the Klan, two of whose members had lynched a black boy, and they sued it for everything it had.  News stories gushed about the great victory and $7 million judgment– but the only asset the KKK had was a warehouse worth about $50,000, so it seems pretty likely the rest of the judgment was never paid.  No word on what the lawyers were paid, but the SPLC got about $9 million in donations.

Nor did it stop.  “One pitch, sent out in 1995– when the Center had more than $60 million in reserves– informed would-be donors that the ‘strain on our current operating budget is the greatest in our 25-year history’.”  The priest in charge of Boys Town thirty years earlier couldn’t have put it any better.  Spin and pitiability were the name of the game.

This is a major form of the corruption of rationality.  Hollywood indulges (wallows?  revels?) in what has become known as “Hollywood Accounting”– the practice of using accounting rules to make it seem as though a movie has made very little actual profit.  (Suckers are willing to take a portion of net profits; those in the know demand a portion of gross receipts, which puts them at the top of the cash flow statement and avoids the bullshit further down.)  In a similar way, major, unionized, labor-intensive companies, back in the day when there were many, were owned in truth far more by the workers than by the theoretical owners.  How’s that?   Well, the true owners of an asset are those that control it, that get the profits from it.  Unions were able to keep voting themselves more and more of the profits in the form of what were supposedly increases to salary and benefits– an added portion of gross receipts.  They were far more the true owners than the nominal owners, the shareholders, who got whatever was left after unions were done, and their “raises” were in fact de facto dividends that were called wage increases by Hollywood-style accounting. 

Major charities, like Boys Town or the SPLC, are no different.  Nominally, they’re non-profit.  In truth, what that often means is that the profits have been Hollywood-accounted away.  They’ve been channeled into extra salaries and benefits, bloated leases on trophy headquarters, and the like.  They are, in essence, powers camouflaged with ideology that isn’t permitted to fade away or adapt to deal with changing problems.

So as you can see, causes and powers have an uneasy relationship.  Political power frequently steers idealists toward the politically profitable potential solutions to the problems they’re idealistic about, and away from the politically unprofitable ones.  By degrees, sadly, the idealists come up with their own Just-So Stories about it and cease to realize that they’re being managed.