Imperialism by Philanthropy

By Beer, Jeremy | The American Conservative, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Imperialism by Philanthropy


Beer, Jeremy, The American Conservative


Philanthropy in America: A History, Olivier Zunz, Princeton University Press, 396 pages

Acknowledgments sections contain such useful information. Case in point: what should we expect from a history of American philanthropy that, according to its author, was funded by three of the largest stars in the philanthropic firmament--the Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, combined assets of $23 billion?

We should expect an official history. And this is what we get. Olivier Zunz's Philanthropy in America: A History is informative. But it is also thoroughly partisan, which severely limits its usefulness.

Foundations stride onto the American stage wearing snow-white hats in Zunz's morality play. Through their strategic funding and expertise, they cure disease, liberate the mind, fight racism, promote democracy, and feed the world. Zunz, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, happily accepts big philanthropy's own claims and prejudices as valid.

The story he tells is quite simple:

Once upon a time, there was charity. Charity sought to help individual men and women in need. It was overseen by churches and synagogues and ethnically based associations. It was modest. It was local. It was hopelessly unsystematic, unorganized, and shortsighted. And it just plain didn't work, as everybody knew.

Fortunately, the men (and their wives) who got rich during America's industrial age were public-spirited folk who wanted to give back. More fortunate yet, they were farsighted business leaders brave enough to want to fundamentally transform society through their good works, just as they had transformed it through their commercial activities. And best of all, few were shackled by the constraints of traditional religious belief.

At the same time, new heroes called reformers entered stage left. They were skeptical of the industrialists, but they broad-mindedly agreed to swallow their doubts in return for a partnership with the tycoons, who needed their help in attacking social problems at their roots. That dream--of finding "long-term solutions to social problems"--was what distinguished both groups from the old practitioners of charity.

Finally, there were the scientists, who were chafing at the restrictions of the denominationally affiliated academic institutions that employed them. They partnered with the industrialists and reformers to capture those institutions so that they could produce the knowledge necessary to remake society and improve the lot of mankind--goals that, thanks to religion, had long been impossible to reach.

And it worked, just as all three groups had said it would! Wealth became directed toward social justice, science was liberated from religion, systemic social reforms were implemented, and man was bettered. The end.

The attentive reader, if he or she can stand that kind of Whig history for 300 pages, will find a more complex story peeking from between the lines of Zunz's text. The critics of the new philanthropy--or what was at first called, in the latter half of the 19th century, "scientific charity"--get very small speaking parts. But Zunz dutifully reports their warnings that the new foundations would only result in America's insanely wealthy gaining even more social power. Zunz implies that their concerns were overblown, outdated, misplaced--and goes on to show that in fact they were right on the money.

Take, for instance, the relentlessly anti-Christian character of the new philanthropy. To "secularize American higher education" was one of its first aims. Secularization was necessary to identify and extirpate the "root causes" of social ills which was impossible without the assistance of "value-neutral" scientific research along the German model. But America's religiously affiliated higher-education institutions--allegedly narrowly "denominational in outlook" and not "open to science"--frustrated this ambition.

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