Liberal philanthropist Susan Sandler announced last week that she will be donating $200 million to support the general operations, programming, and special projects of social-justice nonprofit organizations in the South and Southwest.
“A lot of foundation funding is geared towards persuading people in power to change their minds, and that objective is usually pursued by supporting the development of well-researched reports, studies, and analyses,” according to Sandler in a Medium article about the new support.
“I have come to believe,” however, “that, rather than trying to use persuasive papers and reports to attempt to change the minds of those who are making decisions, the more effective way to transform societal priorities and public policies is to change the climate and environment in which decisions are made,” she writes in the piece.
Specifically, to make the faces of the people with whom policy makers have to interact reflect the full racial, cultural, and economic diversity of the population that is affected by those policies. When our government, corporate, and other societal institutions are responsive to—and, frankly, fearful of—the people who most bear the brunt of inequality and injustice, then better priorities, practices, and policies follow.
Sandler’s article is infused with confidence and moral certainty. Her funds are just the newest infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars awarded by liberal donors to social- and racial-justice organizations to change the country’s cultural and political landscapes, and maybe not necessarily in that order.
We at The Giving Review have wondered where all of this money will actually go—whether it will end up continuing to support an already well-funded, well-credentialed, managerial elite or give new support to genuine, grassroots activists and everyday problem-solvers. Whether, in other words, it will be so non- or even anti-elite as it sounds at first.
Sandler may be—as are many members of the liberal philanthropic intelligentsia, as croyants—driven by the all-too-common conceit that they, in contrast to the “common man,” best understand the problems facing their community, the nation, and mankind at large. And that, by applying their mind, and money, their engagement will address these problems at their roots and advance mankind toward a higher state of being.
However chilling and provocative to consider it, in some important respects, they may be running the risk of becoming a contemporary, conceptual American version of the Russian Kadets.
In the October issue of First Things, Northwestern professor Gary Saul Morson provides us a very good and timely case study of what happened during a previous pursuit of social perfection. His masterfully diligent “Suicide of the Liberals” describes some Russians’ response to the revolutionary demands for a total remake of society in the early 1900s.
Morson’s story occurs in the historical context of “the waves of terror” washing over Russia between 1905 and 1910. Between 1905 and 1907, according to Morson, almost 5,000 government officials and private individuals were killed and injured. Between 1908 and 1910, nearly 20,000 terrorist acts and revolutionary robberies occurred. Murder, robbery, and extortion were the order of the day.
From 1905 forward, many in the intelligentsia of liberal wealthy and educated Russian society—lawyers, teachers, engineers, industrialists, financiers—raised money and gave it to people and groups committing these acts, Morson recounts. These “progressives” in pursuit of the destruction of the regressive, depraved ancien régime elevated the terrorists to the status of holy martyrs.
The Constitutional Democratic Party, called the Kadets, and their deputies in the Duma were part of this intelligentsia. Though the Kadets “advocated democratic, constitutional procedures, and did not themselves engage in terrorism, they aided the terrorists in any way they could,” as Morson tells it in his extensively thorough essay, the
Kadets collected money for terrorists, turned their homes into safe houses, and called for total amnesty for arrested terrorists who pledged to continue the mayhem. Kadet Party central committee member N. N. Shchepkin declared that the party did not regard terrorists as criminals at all, but as saints and martyrs.
The Kadets, all of the intelligentsia, and their allies in business and society at large directed their energies, including their “philanthropic” ones, in a way that served to justify radical intolerance and violence, in the cause of undermining the depraved people on the right. In doing so, the left-progressive avant-garde of pre-1917 Russia, in Morson’s view, chose an anti-constitutionalism that created for itself a separate world of nihilistic moralism.
They “had to subscribe to some ideology—whether populist, Marxist, or anarchist—that was committed to the total destruction of the existing order and its replacement by a utopia that would, at a stroke, eliminate every human ill,” he writes. They signed on to a set of beliefs regarded as totally certain, proven by science and absolute for any moral person.
“Though some liberals recognized their differences from the radicals, most acted like intelligentsia wannabes who were unwilling to acknowledge, even to themselves, that their values were essentially different,” according to Morson, describing another time. “Socialized to regard anything conservative as reprehensible—and still worse, as a social faux pas—they contrived ways to justify radical intolerance and violence as forced, understandable, and noble.”
In the different context of our time, but perhaps concerningly consonant with the kind of wannabe-istic attitude that Morson describes, contemplate the confidence and moral certainty of Sandler and her fellow philanthropic croyants. Think of her disdain of “trying to use persuasive papers and reports” to change minds. Consider her preference for the powerful and influential instead being “responsive to—and, frankly, fearful of—” certain fellow citizens.
There might be some creeping Kadetism lurking in there, as well as in establishment liberal philanthropy more generally. It is a risk of which there should be real, and more, wariness.