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June 09, 2008

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tom

Hard to disagree. Mr. Moyers seems in accord: ...democracy without honest information creates the illusion of popular consent while enhancing the power of the state and the privileged interests protected by it. Democracy without accountability creates the illusion of popular control while offering ordinary Americans only cheap tickets to the balcony, too far away to see that the public stage has become just a reality TV set. Nothing more characterizes corporate media today, mainstream and partisan, than disdain toward the fragile nature of modern life and indifference toward the complex social debate required of a free and self-governing people. dn

To see this is not necessarily to understand why, or how, seeing and blindness, memory and amnesia, understanding and mindlessness, enable it. Mr. Bracciolini wondered at the lack of twinge. It is wonderful, no?

Phil

Yes, taken from his Facetiae. Makes you wonder, Tom, about genre, doesn't it? In what genre might be disenfranchised citizens raise our mild counter-voice? Facetiae on a grand scale might work better than the earnest moralizing of a Mr. Moyers?

Jeff Trexler

Philanthropy is tragic by definition, inasmuch as it's defined in terms of its inherent virtue. That's one of the problems I have with such terms as "fraud and abuse," which assumes that that the problem lies with an impulse wholly separate from charity itself. The problem is charity.

Of course, saying this means that no one at conferences ever offers to pay for my drinks.

Phil

If the problem is charity what is the solution? Social ventures? Taxation and transparent government? Feudalism? Jeff, you might well enjoy getting to know Tom and his work. Tom was at Yale in Comp Lit in my era there. You and he might find you have much in common.

tom

Niebuhr may have been too busy drilling his troops to give much thought to Facetiae. Not sure how they'd look on a grand scale. You have an idea?

Jeff: Is it charity, or the system in which it tries to act, that's the problem? If the donor is replacing money that's been fleeced from citizens of a state apparatus that deposits their taxes in untraceable accounts, is that charity? Whose good purposes does it serve?

Phil

Nuggae, maybe, if facetiae alone won't do it. We have kept our end up, Tom. Maybe not on a grand scale, but faithfully, day in and day out.

Jeff Trexler

@Tom: No, the problem is charity itself, so long as we regard charity as intrinsically good.

The charitable impulse can express itself in a wide spectrum of forms. Understanding this process and approving particular expressions are two different tasks, with the latter more on often than not obscuring the former.

Once we set out to determine whether a particular form is "true" charity, we lose sight of how it came to be. Here be dragons.

@Phil: Saying that social enterprise or government is better merely substitutes one absolute ideal for another. From a Niebuhrian perspective this is folly.

Phil

@Jeff, where do you see any leverage? Comic books?

tom

Jeff, I'm guessing you've written about this elsewhere in more detail - if you have, I'd like to read it.

Phil

Tom, Jeff wrote a brilliant paper for a Yale Law Journal on the telos or essence of nonprofits. That is not the way he put it, but how I read it. It was nominalist, but suggested that at least historically ordinary people have approached nonprofits with certain expectations that they might meet or might not. Those expectations get embodied in the legal form, but exist beyond that in the "spirit of the thing." Again this is my rememberng his dense and erudite essay. Hope he does amplify his thinking or point you to an online source.

tom

Thanks Phil. Speaking of genre, I hadn't seen this earlier, but it looks like the merest mention of Menippus might have punctuated the equilibration of an interesting conversation.

Phil

You and actually Jeff are the two people I know who can conceptualize the genre question (genres of writing about giving) with an eye to literary history. Jeff comes at it via Mcluhan, but not just the well known works. Apparently, in his dissertation at Cambridge, Mcluhan traced the history of what is now a submerged genre, expressing itself mostly in popular works like advertising and subliterary things like comix. In that writing, the writing of, say, Menippus, Aristophanes, Erasmus, Donne, Swift, Gay, Sterne, Wilde, the Diderot of Rameau's Nephew, Joyce and maybe Derrida the medium becomes the massage, the writing takes over and masters reason, makes mockery of logic, trangresses and overflows all normalcy. The age of reason as age of madness. To introduce the line of Mennippus is to change away from the prose that measures, manages, professes, convinces, sermonizes, judges and offers verdicts backed by the force of reason, and hierarchies and categorical frameworks that maintain it. To introduce Digoenes and Company is to turn that reasoned managed professionalized world upside down, maybe. Either that or we turn that old methodology, of ritual, of incantation, of thaumaturgy over to Hollywooed, Mad Ave, and the Pentagon. Either white magic of art, or the black magic of propaganda. Either way we as writers must take the decision. Either we write from within the managed world as well managed souls ourselves, and are accepted and promoted as such, or we write in excess, in which the writing becomes opaque, a surface in which two Fools, writer and audience, see their distored images, and the world swims by in The Clouds. The Moody and Payton book is written in the style of Strunk and White drawn from Horace, but without the satirical bite. It is the prose of the moderate reasoned man in charge. The prose taught in prep school in Imperial Rome, Augustan England, Jowett's Balliol, and down to Choate et al ever since. Only now in fact that moderate, preppy, literate man in charge is operating out of a Dumpster, his tradition ended, replaced by the MBA, who could care less about moral or literary traditions, except insofar as they come into the topics of pr, advertising, or intellectual property. So, yes, toss the Payton and Moody book into the Dumpster and let us play at being Men of Affairs, and wear our masks and miter boards as the public streams past their eyes on the neon lights above WB and the half naked tatooed Goth Girl holding out a deodorant. I wish Jeff would pull his attention from these subliterary genres and write on giving from his almost intimidating erudtion, as a man trained in both religion and nonprofit law. A future Genius Grant winner, I hope, when he can no longer contain himself and begins to write like a Maniac or Fool in his own right.

Michael Moody

Are satirist, MBA, or "preppy, literate man in charge [for now]" our only choices? We are indeed in trouble if that is the case!

Where would Paul Farmer (my current philanthropist ideal type) fit, then?

Phil

Paul is a hero, indeed. My wife has read a book by him and constantly sings his praises. He has clearly aligned in life with this ideals and puts the likes of me to shame. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Farmer

Writing, like giving, is also a form of moral action. How do we align our style with our stance, our standpoint, our position in the world? My point is that the liberal arts have been marginalized. To write from that standpoint as an even handed moderator, commentator, studious observer partakes inadvertently of the ludic, the comic, the droll. That is not a criticism of your work, but how the plain style has come to feel to me, like a old suit, from better days, worn at the elbows and too tight in the knees. Maybe that reflects my own marginal status personally, more than that of the liberal arts. The plain style fits well with gradualism, meliorism, and a few that philanthropy is a matter of making a pretty good thing better, without necessarily upsetting the powers that be.

When you begin to feel your own status as a pariah, you can only write the plain style as a schmiel or parodistically or with trapdoors than open into a void. That is how you get into the mess that presents itself as art in the Menippean tradition. Such art turns the world upside down as philanthropy spins it right side up. Thus how moral traditions play out in the public squware can sometimes take on the aspect of farce. Some of our moral traditions, particularly that of Mennipus, are a scandal to the plain, moderate, sensible, and melioristic.

I hope I am not being ungrateful or a jerk. My object of attack here is my own plain style, the style I find so tedious as Gifthub, that of the earnest honest dupe.

Michael Moody

I appreciate your point, and certainly you are not a jerk. You speak the truth, in anything but a plain style(!), that the liberal arts have been marginalized. I'm with you on that, brother.

I guess I just disagree that radical ideas must be presented in radical prose to be effective as forces of social change. Or that a clear, polite style necessarily implies polite, moderate ideas (this puts me a bit at odds with the McLuhan tradition, I realize). Another of my favorite philanthropists, Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrates the latter point perfectly in his "patient and reasonable" (his words), lyrical yet learned, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Having said that, I agree that the kingdom of philanthropy could use more court jesters. And I agree that the message of change is well-served by the medium of satire, or of motley excess.

tom

Farce, motley, satire, outrage, prophetic fire, dangerous resolution couched in reasonable sentences that make mincemeat of moderation - these are all in play, and in earnest - modes of upsetting civil regimens of barbarous intent. King's dumpster was not at that moment of his own choosing. Don't let the literary terms mislead - the letter is of a piece with modes of speaking that set fire to mild white literacy.

Phil

Yes, Michael's book is about philanthropy as a moral tradition; the MLK example shows that "meliorism" and the plain style of moderation and even handedness are not the only traditions of civic leadership. When we lead from below, the modes of discourse are not always those of the moderator, the referee, or the judge. When the professional gets involved with a movement like civil rights as a funder, he or she may impose many rules and requirements to make the whole process more businesslike, and hence sap the movement of its ability to create real change. That is the critique of established philanthropy mounted by "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded." That is, the educated, temperate, reasonable, cautious, melioristic culture of the Board of a Foundation, or wealthy philanthropists, is generally unresponsive to turning their world upside down. Those they reward will be those who play ball by the rules of those in charge.

JJ Commoner

the educated, temperate, reasonable, cautious, melioristic culture of the Board of a Foundation, or wealthy philanthropists, is generally unresponsive to turning their world upside down. Those they reward will be those who play ball by the rules of those in charge.

Accounting, in the largest sense of the word, dominates.

FIFO ... a generally-accepted accounting (for) / accountability principle ... or GAAP.

Phil

Accounting for accountability to us, as funders, or those MBAs and technocrats we designate. That is the prevailing ethos. Turning to the liberal arts, as opposed to the sciences of accounting and management is promising, but meliorism and moderation may produce, in the end, much the same gradualistic results. What moral traditions and what literary models? Some can be insubordinate. Is that good or bad? From a funder's perspective?

Michael Moody

"...prophetic fire, dangerous resolution couched in reasonable sentences that make mincemeat of moderation - these are all in play, and in earnest - modes of upsetting civil regimens of barbarous intent." Exactly.

Phil

One other point, if we look at the langauge of think tanks and other purveyors of mendacity, you will find it framed in the plain and balanced ("Fair and Balanced") prose of the honest man, the plain dealer, the sincere educated expert. Reality is the plain style functions today as a cloak for the Knave no less than as a crutch for the Dupe. At some point, we have to reawaken the full resources of the English language, of eloquence, prophecy, art and Carnival, to offset the plausible mendacity.

These thoughts are much in line with the book by Payton and Moody, stressing moral heritages, and how they play out from generation to generation. All we are doing in these threads among friends is asking about style, what styles might awaken these slumbrous citizens and sow confusion and chagrin among their handlers. What language might awaken a movement in defense of our traditions? (Including the tradition of honesty and openness in government and reason in civic discourse, traditions now honored more in the breach than in the observance.)

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