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Washington Diarist

Alms and The Man

Will the rich save the world? This has not been their traditional service to humankind; but in contemporary America you may be forgiven for believing in the messianic power of personal wealth. We are still enjoying the economicist fantasy that was inaugurated by technology in the Clinton years and consolidated by ideology in the Bush years. Could it be that the rich did not previously save the world because they were not rich enough? But they are rich enough now, right? I do not mean to be too clever. Bill Gates's transformation of the greatest fortune in history into the greatest philanthropy in history will earn him a pride of place not only in the annals of American technology but also in the annals of American morality. No, it is the Clinton Global Initiative that makes me weary of the veneration of plutocrats. I have been reading the transcripts of the event. They are peculiarly repellent, the nobility of their purpose notwithstanding.

Some of what is alienating about these transcripts are their strictly Clintonian features. For a start, there is the cult of the personality: The former president is addressed by various speakers rather in the manner in which I imagine Enver Hoxha used to be addressed. "Bring back President Clinton," one speaker exclaimed to "[applause and cheers]." (These pages are rife with "[applause].") Nelson Mandela appeared by video feed from South Africa, but only for the purpose of introducing Bill Clinton. (In the most excruciating moment of all, Clinton recalls that he once wore Mandela's prison shirt to a party.) The Clinton Global Initiative is just a charity ball with the same guest of honor every year. Then there was the fatuity: "I thank you," Clinton told the executive director of unicef, "and Africa thanks you." And the banality: Religion is like a knife, Desmond Tutu taught. "If you slice a loaf of bread, it's good. And if you slice somebody's hand off, it's bad." (The former president remarked about this insight that "I will never forget [it] as long as I live.") And there was the familiar Clinton hunger for the A-list. The CGI was not only McKinsey moralized, it was also Hilton Head globalized. The former president warmly remembered that when he had trouble finding enough progressive lightbulbs for his house, he called the CEO of General Electric. The Clintons prefer the company of winners, even if they assemble the winners to talk about the losers. And to the old exclusiveness of these egalitarians there was added a new piousness, the snobbery of the saints. The best people turn out to be the best people. The Clintons have never recognized any difference between good people and people who help them. Even Rupert Murdoch is now a good man. If Paula Jones owned Google, a Christian reconciliation would long ago have been accomplished. And finally, of course, there was the lofty logorrhea, the sea of talk. This is an articulate lot, which is to say, they have many more words than thoughts. Recounting a meeting with the prime minister of Ethiopia about the "conversion ratio" of alternative sources of energy, Clinton told his audience: "I had this long discussion. I said, `Well, what about cellulosic fuel?' He said, `Well, if it's good, you get a four-to- one conversation ratio.'"

It is a deadening experience, the perusal of these pages and their conversation ratios. The offense is not in the wonkery, which the problems require (and far be it from me to demur from socially responsible transactional charges to MP3 downloads); the offense is in the vanity. The only thing more vivid than the participants' interest in climate change and ethnic conflict and aids was their interest in themselves. "How about that Richard Branson?" "The incomparable Donna Shalala." And so on. The congratulations were all self- congratulations. Whether or not the pledges and the goals are met, there will be the after-party; the after-party of the humanitarians. The CGI transcripts offer many cautionary illustrations of the vanity of virtue. No, there is nothing wrong with charity; and yes, charitable individuals deserve recognition and gratitude. But there remains the question of the psychology of generosity, which has implications for the moral understanding of it. In Maimonides's renowned analysis of charity, the highest form of largesse is to assist the poor man "by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid"--with a job or a business partnership. In many ways the experts and the donors at the CGI honored this ideal of self-reliance, which the philosopher says is "exceeded by none." But the next highest degree is anonymous giving. Oops. Maimonides declares that nameless and faceless contributions are "performing the meritorious deed for its own sake," and he notes that in the Temple there was a "hall of secrecy" where people would clandestinely leave their gifts for the needy. Righteousness must not be debased into an occasion for, an ornament of, celebrity. The motives of ethical action are always mixed. A good deed can also be corrupting. A blessing, then, on the CGI and its benevolent din; but it is asking for more admiration than it deserves.

Anyway, charity is only charity. I know it is rude to say so, but Bill Clinton had eight years as the most powerful man on earth to act against climate change and ethnic conflict and AIDS, and his achievements were too paltry to be explained merely by his scandals. Still, I do not wish to fix on this man and his manic search for "redemption." Enough of him. I wish only to suggest that all the philanthropy in the world cannot do the work of politics, policies, and power. There was an air of unreality about the charitocrats' deliberations in New York. It is the same air of unreality that afflicts the conservative illusion that voluntarism and the conscience of the private sector will suffice. The income inequalities in our legendarily moneyed world, however you explain them, are hideous: This is the element of truth in the neo-Marxism that is about to engulf us, and that would have engulfed us years ago in the form of the antiglobalization movement if September 11 had not changed the subject. And the politics of the present day do not seem especially aroused by these inequalities. There have been better times to be worse off. The fine meliorism of the CGI reads a lot like happy talk about tragedy. Maybe I am so sick of self-importance because I am so given to it, or maybe I am now old enough to see how stubbornly the world refuses to change, or maybe I have been watching The Wire too much, but if I were a poor man I would turn off the rich and the famous and look to my own and organize.

This article originally ran in the October 9, 2006, issue of the magazine.