money and politics, nc style

The New Yorker has a good, thorough article on Art Pope, right-wing political benefactor in North Carolina. It’s interesting, and demonstrates the pervasive nature of Pope’s influence on NC politics, education, and culture. However it does make some of the same mistakes often made in discussions of money and politics.

The first is the mistake of assuming that money is always corrupting. The fact that someone–candidate, group, movement, whatever–is funded by a particular benefactor is not in and of itself a charge. This position functions as a form of ad hominem argument, and I’ve argued against it before for “our” side as well as theirs. Art Pope and the groups he funds are wrong on lots of issues, and deserve to be called out for being wrong on them. The article provides several examples of times when Pope-funded campaigns engaged in intentional deception; that’s wrong, and should be condemned. But the fact of their funding source is not a priori evidence of their wrongness.

The second mistake is confusing the source of the money with what it’s trying to do. Referencing a 2004 incident in which I played a major role:

Pope reacted angrily to the notion that some professors consider his money tainted. “We’re in retailing!” he said. “It’s not as if it’s blood diamonds!”

Although I don’t dispute that some professors do consider his money tainted, I do not. I consider his behavior reprehensible and his political positions anathema, but I do not consider his money tainted. In 2004 he was seeking, essentially, to finance the creation of a new curriculum and to dictate the specific content of that curriculum. The University had, and maintains, specific guidelines limiting donors’ ability to specify the intellectual content of programs they fund. In short: I, and the team I was part of, objected to the donation not because of its source, but because it put unacceptable constraints on the intellectual practice of the faculty and students. Bottom line: I think it’s better, both morally and strategically, to focus on the content, constraints, and opportunities that follow money than to try and adjudicate the purity of the people providing that money.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

4 thoughts on “money and politics, nc style”

  1. Andrew, I think two issues are confounded here. One is the problem of buying influence with money and concerns that policies, programs or legislation will be tipped to favor the source of the money. In the case you cite, the donor was overtly trying to buy a program that would favor his goals, and you said no. That is right and proper.

    But there is another reason people or organizations refuse money, even money that is offered with no strings, and that is because the money is tainted, in the sense that it comes from an illegitimate source that you don’t want to be associated with. A couple of decades ago NOW refused money from the Playboy Foundation on the grounds that regardless of what Playboy said its politics were (and it was giving money to support policies NOW actually was pursuing), NOW did not want to be associated with the objectification of women and did not want to be complicit in adding to Playboy’s desire for social legitimacy. Many organizations refuse money from criminals. This is a real issue because many criminals and otherwise sketchy actors try to achieve social legitimacy by giving money to good causes. There would be some people or groups that would refuse money from companies that made money in sweatshops or environmental destruction. This would be both on moral grounds and on the grounds that your own organization could be delegitimated by its funding sources.

    Your frustration is that UNC’s refusal to take money for reasons of the first type is being described as if it were a reason of the second type, but that does not make reasons of the second type out of bounds for moral or ethical people, or crass self-interested rational actors, for that matter.

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  2. OW, I do understand the distinction, and thanks for pointing it out. However I think in most cases the idea of tainted money (the “second type”) is problematic. In the NOW example: ought the principle extend to taking money from any company practicing or engaging in sexist practices? Any individual holding sexist beliefs or views? If so, I daresay NOW would quickly be bankrupt. If not, where ought the line be drawn?

    I generally prefer the approach taken by The Nation: accept money from (essentially) all comers but reserve the right to disclaim the legitimacy of those funders. During the NEA controversies of the 1980s, The Nation ran a commentary about artists who refused NEA money because of the content restrictions attached by Jesse Helms et al. The commentary suggested that that was the wrong approach; the right approach would be to take the money and intentionally violate the restrictions, thereby actively asserting the artists’ right to free expression.

    I feel similarly about academic funding. If Pope money is out of bounds, is Z. Smith Reynolds (tobacco origins)? What foundation money isn’t tainted by its origins in oil, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automobiles, etc.? I think we ought to take the money and do good things with it — and reject money when the contractual obligations of its donation prevent good things from being done with it.

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  3. Hey Andrew, just because you don’t agree with the idea of tainted money or that you disagree with specific instances of refusal does not mean that people who hold this position are lunatics. At the extreme, it is illegal to receive stolen property. There is no institution in the country that would come out unscathed if it were revealed that it was knowingly getting contributions from a cocaine cartel. There is no mainstream politician in the country that can accept money from the KKK without taking major political damage. I doubt that even you or the Nation would say “money is money” at the extreme. What we’re talking about is where the line ought to be, and that is clearly a judgment that people and organizations make based on their values and their perceptions of how the action will be viewed by others.

    In the case of NOW and Playboy, for example, the reason NOW insisted on turning the money down is that they viewed Playboy’s desire to give the money as at attempt to signal that it was a feminist organization and to buy public legitimacy. Which it obviously was, by the way. Why you think there is a problem with a social movement organization considering the political implications of who it accepts money from eludes me.

    It is an entirely different matter to say (as some did) that Playboy isn’t that bad, to point out (as many did) that the person running Playboy at the time was a woman who saw herself as a feminist, and to support (as many did) the branch of feminism that does not see overt heterosexuality as inherently demeaning to women. (The pro-sex branch of feminism sees the problem with Playboy in its models’ anorexia, not the nudity per se.)

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  4. Well no, of course I don’t think people who disagree are “lunatics,” and I don’t think I claimed anything like that. Of course money illegally obtained is a major problem, as would be money from the KKK (although there are plenty of buildings on US campuses named after KKK leaders, presumably from a prior era). So you’re right that at the extreme it’s a concern. But my general point still stands: trying to determine whose money is worthy of taking is a slippery slope, and the alternative — taking money from (nearly) anybody but maintaining strong control over its use — is more attractive. Imagine, for example, if NOW had taken the Playboy money and used it to launch an anti-Playboy campaign!

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