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When Bad Actions Have Good Consequences

May 13, 2012, 5:05 AM
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Phoney-baloney outrage. Black-hat, white-hat exaggeration. Every day, I get emails some activist organization or other, suggesting that the nation hangs by a thread, about to drop into a bottomless pit of slimy hells unless I sign a petition or contribute at least $25 to someone's campaign for a vital office in Wisconsin or Nebraska. It's all theatrical political hooey, which has about as much relationship to a real human emotion as a waxwork Prince to the real one. Clyde Haberman came across an example the other day and used it to call b.s. on this kind of fakery. As he writes here, this kind of thing isn't merely annoying. It's bad for society when people pretend that in our public life, Good must associate only with Good—no ambiguity allowed.

The trigger for Haberman's exasperation is a statement issued at the end of last month's Tribeca Film festival, signed by 30 artists. It criticized the festival for accepting support from Brookfield Properties, because that company, as landlord of Zuccotti Park, evicted the Occupy Wall Street encampment there. The Festival, said the statement, shouldn't let this bad company rebrand itself as a friend of free expression.

This statement has many dumbbell passages (like the one saying its signers have just learned at the Festival's end that Brookfield is a Festival sponsor, when it has in fact been one since 2005). But Haberman zeroes in on the crucial lie at its heart: The claim that a bad action means its performer must be a bad actor—if Brookfield did a bad thing by evicting OWS, then Brookfield is bad in all that it does. This idea is, of course, ridiculous, and everyone knows it, at least in the conduct of their private lives. All of us over the age of 7 know we have done some good and some bad in the world.

Yet when the subject shifts from personal life to public affairs, we're invited to take seriously the claim that there are no lights and darks mixed together in the life of institutions. And the fallacy isn't confined to political propagandists. Consider this passage from Wendell Berry's Jefferson Lecture last month at the Kennedy Center in Washington. He is recounting the moment when he was walking about the Duke University campus and came upon a statue of the school's namesake benefactor, James B. Duke, whose fortune was made, Berry writes, by ruining the livelihoods of thousands of tobacco farmers:

on my first visit to Duke University, and by surprise, I came face-to-face with James B. Duke in his dignity, his glory perhaps, as the founder of that university. He stands imperially in bronze in front of a Methodist chapel aspiring to be a cathedral. He holds between two fingers of his left hand a bronze cigar. On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”

 

It's hard to dispute this view from the farm, until we remember that there are other interests in the world, and other people. Because the logic of this passage is that in a better world, a world that is just and respects hard work and Nature, there would be no Duke University. And therefore no Rockefeller University. And no Carnegie Mellon. And no Harvard or Yale, for that matter. No Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do good work against malaria. All such entities, created by capital accumulated by making other people's lives hard, must be counted "fruit of a poisonous tree," as lawyers call evidence gathered by improper methods. Does Berry suggest that no great institution is worth the pain that made it possible? I have a hard time reading this passage any other way.

The problem with such a claim is simple: Everyone alive today has been shaped by the injustices and cruelties of the past. To suggest that no good could come from Duke's despoiling Berry's ancestors is not different from suggesting that no good could come from the era when Berry's earlier ancestors despoiled Native Americans of their land, or the day they decided to grow that cancer-causing weed, tobacco. If good consequences cannot grow from a bad beginning, then there is literally nothing good on this earth. To look at history insisting that virtue cannot arise from vice is tantamount to declaring that you wish you didn't exist.

Haberman has come to a similar conclusion about the poisonous roots of great institutions:

Were it not for the largess of men widely denounced in their time as robber barons, New York City might not have Riverside Church (financed by the Rockefellers), or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (J.P. Morgan) or Carnegie Hall (self-explanatory).

Was Baptist Medical Center, now defunct, morally bankrupt for having taken money from John Gotti? Or Long Island Jewish Medical Center for having created a bone marrow transplant unit with a gift from a foundation led by another prominent mobster, Thomas Gambino?

Fair question, don't you think?

Illustration: Eve tempts Adam, which was a bad thing, except that it was also a good thing. Detail from "The Fall of Man," Pietro Mera

 

When Bad Actions Have Good ...

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