Before You Roll Up Your Sleeves

Adam Keiper
[This is the original version of an essay that appeared, in much truncated form, under the title “There’s No Substitute for Personal Contact” in the Winter 2017 issue of Philanthropy.]

Kudos to Karl Zinsmeister for the suggestions he offers for how philanthropy might help revitalize civil society to induce beneficial social change. Among other things, he deserves applause for highlighting the Tappan brothers and some of the many philanthropic pies in which they had their fingers. Some enterprising historian or biographer should follow Zinsmeister’s lead and lift the Tappans from their undeserved obscurity.

In inviting us to imagine a future for a renewed and strengthened civil society, What Comes Next? explicitly raises some difficult questions that the other respondents in this symposium have ably discussed. I wish to shine a light on two themes lurking in the background.

First is the matter of technology and technocracy. In the essay and case studies, technological advancement is mentioned in passing as a source of philanthropic wealth and as a source of new tools for civil society. But it is worth remembering that even as new technologies solve problems, they can create others. Some of the pathologies that now beset our society arose as consequences, often unintended and perhaps unanticipatable, of novel technologies. In many respects we are still recognizably the restless, enterprising beings that Tocqueville described and that Zinsmeister’s four case studies, entirely drawn from the nineteenth century, depict. But by liberating us from old constraints and giving us new powers, twentieth-century innovations — from the automobile to the birth-control pill to television to the computer and the Internet — profoundly altered our family and community structures and our moral and political lives. At the same time, the decline of voluntary associations and the erosion of mediating institutions that What Comes Next? laments were exacerbated by the technocratic remaking of the relationship between citizens and the state. So when considering complicated social problems, we ought to eschew simple technological fixes. And, in our private philanthropic efforts, we should be chary of the technocratic tendencies that often lead to failures in public-sector bureaucracies — such as a commitment to levers or nudges, or a uniform insistence on metrics no matter the appropriateness or context.

If we are to overcome our enervating dependency on the state and on vast technocratic systems, we must also resist other temptations related to today’s technology. The screens on our walls, on our desks and laps, and in our hands can give us a misimpression of intimate knowledge of social problems, even problems in distant lands. As citizens, we might feel that we can deal with those problems from the comfort of our offices or armchairs with a well-placed tap or swipe of a finger — “liking” a video, adding our name to a petition, donating in response to a charity’s urgent appeal. This is fine as far as it goes. But as the case studies in What Comes Next? make clear, social problems are often knotty and interconnected, with messy unspooling threads of cause and effect. The creativity and work and steady patience over time that are required to ameliorate social problems stand in stark opposition to the instant gratification of clicktivism.

The best way to intimately understand social problems is to witness them up close as lived — to seek out the schools and shelters and sickbeds, the pantries and playgrounds, the needy and lost, old and young, whole and bruised, and the helpers who know firsthand the stakes and the hopes. But this is slow and often impractical. Which brings us to the second hidden theme of What Comes Next?: the importance of intellectual and journalistic work. Zinsmeister notes in passing the need for fresh publishing, and describes in his case studies the role that thinkers, writers, and public speakers played in disseminating ideas. It is worth dwelling on this point.

Before local clubs, civic associations, volunteer groups, charitable efforts, individual donors, and philanthropic foundations can get to work, they require some idea of how to direct their energies and resources. The practical cannot proceed without the moral and theoretical. University researchers, policy wonks, think tank scholars, and public intellectuals (to the extent that such a species still exists) can help identify, clarify, and explain patterns of problems and potential improvements. As we fittingly praise the practical problem solver with sleeves rolled up and hands dirty, let us not neglect the bleary-eyed, brow-furrowed intellectual, who crucially shapes our understanding of what to do and how to do it.

Meanwhile, why should donors support journalistic work, when we seem nowadays to suffer from a surfeit of information, a firehose of facts and data and tweets and videos gushing at us all the time? It is certainly true that there are more channels of communication accessible to more people than ever before. But a closer look at recent changes in media production and consumption reveal worrying trends. American newsrooms have 40 percent fewer employees than they did just a decade ago. It is ever easier for readers and viewers to encounter news and opinions that only confirm their preexisting beliefs, including via the infotainment of talk radio, nightly cable shoutfests, and political comedy shows. And social media, for all their merits, lend themselves too readily to shallowness, viciousness, cynicism, and falsehood. High-quality, substantive journalism is slow and hard, and the economic models that once sustained it have largely crumbled.

Telling true stories and bringing ideas to life are indispensable to successful action. Patriotic philanthropists who want to contribute to making our union more perfect should consider directing more resources toward new or existing intellectual and journalistic projects, which can help us to understand our country and our fellow citizens as they really are and as they may yet be.

—Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.