Posted by The Happy Tutor
Homage to H. Peter Karoff, Friend and Mentor to Many
Insiders/Outsiders - Spanning the Boundaries
Silence, the sound of a door shutting, inclusion and exclusion, the limits of the plain style, the role of altruism and the role art in a capitalist democratic society -- those have been our themes here in the Carnival of Capital that we call Wealth Bondage. Let me pay homage to the man from whom I have learned most, in recent years, H. Peter Karoff. He is the consummate philanthropic insider, revered as a practitioner, teacher, entrepreneur, advisor to the ultra-wealthy, to governors, and a presence on many boards. He is the kind of man who would take the occasion of a visit to the Rockefeller mansion, Kykuit to write a poem, critical of wealth and power. Peter came up, as the inheritors might say, from nothing. His father was a Russian Jew who ran a corner store here in America, and kept a conversation going with his neighbors and customers. Peter worked his way up as a Peddler selling pots and pans, then life insurance, then real estate. He was an activist organizer in the '60s for civil rights, and helped produce the noted documentary on that era, "Eye on a Prize." He started the largest and (in my view) most effective and most idealistic philanthropic consulting company, The Philanthropic Initiative. The crazy guy started TPI with his own money, and his own sweat, and started it as a nonprofit, meaning that he can never sell it, nor get his equity out. Along the way he picked up an MFA in poetry, and dearly loves Rilke and his angels. Recently, he has been teaching philanthropy at Tufts and living, as he says, "the life of a writer."
Based on reading and rereading his recent pieces at Karoff Corner, I am going to tell a story, a surmise. I have no inside info. So the story will be fictional, but will point, I hope, to certain issues that Peter and I are both trying, sometimes more successfully than others, to address as a matter of personal moral torment and public responsibility. It has, Liz et. al., to do with silences, safe places, positions of wealth and power, responsibility, doors shutting, walls, being most comfortable around your own kind, erasure, and the erasure of the gesture of erasure, leaving an unblemished polite, though largely faux, surface that we call authenticity, when the role swallows the person whole, like Jonah in the Whale.
The Dialogue of Wealth and Virtue
The Consultant, call him a Values-based Planner, or Strategic Philanthropy Guru, met the potential client, let's say, on a Board Retreat for some University on which both sit. (Or at Aspen Institute, or some other tony place.) The Guru has been on the Rich Man about giving. The Rich Man is 70 some and has never given away a dime, though he is a liberally educated and religiously observant, a decent all around guy. He founded, let's say, a Brand Name Shoe Company, which is now a global enterprise. The Rich Man measures his net worth in round numbers, that being one billion give or take a fraction. He claims he will live forever, that competitive drive and work keep the undertaker away. He seems, in the Guru's mind, to be missing something, maybe the gene for altruism. Then out of the blue comes a call -- My friend, you are one heck of a salesman. I am going to do it; you know the numbers, I want to put a third of it to work in philanthropy; you know me, my values, my balance sheet, show me what you think I should do.
Now, let me tell you more, though I may be mixing up two or more clients. The Shoe Company has a Foundation. And they have a PR problem. They make their shoes in foreign sweatshops, and they, let's, say employ children in those sweatshops. So, the Foundation to counteract any misunderstanding that may have arisen in the public press as to their values of Humanity and Compassion, has hired a Strategic Philanthropy firm to recommend a "win/win" philanthropic/business/public relations strategy. The plan as implemented calls for giving an award to leading human rights activists, who have "stood up" for human rights around the world. The Consultant gets the job of writing the copy. (I am improvising here.) In it he praises each of the human rights activists who have won the award. Yet someone is missing, an activist named, Dita Sari, who turned down the award, as a kind of insult. She and she alone stood up. And guess, what? I can in my visionary mood (or delusionary) hear the sound of a door shutting, a buzz of educated voices behind the closed door. I can hear, I think, the sound of an eraser going on paper, over and over. The piece in praise of the Corporate Foundation and the activists, and the Foundation's own Press Release, (correct me if I am wrong) contain no mention of Dita. Yet the title of Peter's essay is "Standing Up."
When I read that piece, I was sick at heart. I kept talking by email with Peter about his work, but remained sick at heart. Peter is working at the very edge of the abyss, like a rock climber, without a rope. We talk about technique, survival skills. We talk about Emerson, Swift, Diogenes, speaking truth to power, and more recently about Greek Tragedy and Hegel's theory of "the splitting of the ethical substance," the view that tragedy works through and beyond the moral understanding of a tribe, and forces that moral understanding from one level, of tragic conflict, to a resolution that remains unspoken, implicit in the tragic recognition, embodied, or bodied forth, but unspeakable. We talked -- through a mutual friend of ours -- the Author Function of WB, about the role of the Chorus, as moral monitor, as representing the highest but less than stellar moral understanding of the tribe, how they are, in effect, stand-ins for the audience, and a kind of Job's Comforter. Out of that conversation came the piece I admire and want to honor, "Chorus Second Variation."
Chorus II by Peter Karoff
The piece has two and only two voices, though a third, and silent persona is present in the byline. One voice is the transliterated voice of the client, the man with a Shoe and Athletic Goods Company. He reminds me of Undershaft in Shaw's Major Barbara, the arm's dealer, a kind of modern Nobel, who invented both dynamite and a peace prize. The client has extraordinary self-knowledge, like a Modern Machiavel or an MBA with a liberal arts education. Like a Carnegie who stood down the miner's union at Homestead with rifle fire from a private corporate army, and went on to endow libraries and Carnegie Mellon. The client knows exactly what he has done, why he did it, and why it was right. Yes, he explains that he did and does and will employ children at very low wages to make shoes, under conditions unacceptable in America, but it is a social venture and public service, for without that job the kid and his or her whole family will starve to death, like their cousins, in the streets. The client writes in the style, forgive me! of AKMA, Liz, Dick Minim, all who inherit the educated English Plainstyle, the High Church Style of openness, candor, truth and trust, via Strunk and White, Addison and Steele, Swift of the Sermons, Dryden's Essays, Ben Jonson's Lyrics, and Horace's Epistles. It is the style of good manners, good taste, good humor, and good sense. It is the style of liberally educated gentleman, and now their managerial women counterparts. It is the style used among friends who run things. You will never see in that style the word, shit. But with that style you can manage a sweatshop, a Foundation, a Company, and Chair the Board of a Unversity, or fund a $300 million charitable project. Peter, judging from his efforts to transcend it, knows that this style is, to cite Jameson, a prison house, a charnel house, it is the white sepulcher in which the corpse of human decency rots. It is a style of Innocence and Experience that have mingled to a deadly brew, not of "Achieved Innocence," but of Strategic Philanthropy, with an eye on the main chance: wealth, power, social good, child labor, and personal redemption, per impossible, perchance. Yet, what is a guy gonna do? Peter is in the charitable consulting business. He is the ultimate insider. What is he going to do? Call the client a moral monster? Challenge this modern Alexander's ethics? Judgment? Taste? Manners? Morals? Mores? His prose style? Drive away a gift of $300 mil? The perfect, after all, is the enemy of the good; and as we say, ruefully, "No good deed goes unpunished." Yet, having read so widely, and feeling that charitable work is a "long distance call," a cause in which we "enroll or enlist," how can my friend Peter perpetually perjure himself, as he did so well, but in such anguish, in that silence riddled piece on "Standing Up"?
Answer: two voices, a text in two voices. Chorus II slashes the text with another voice, not that of an Angel, not that of God, not that of Conscience, but that of the most advanced American moral voice, not Bill Bennett's by the way. That voice is the voice of the chorus, lamenting, pleading, wringing its hands. O Woe unto us that our riches come on the backs of the little kids; Woe to us! And how much did you say that Shoe Guy is worth? Peter is absent from the Text. He has absconded, as Flaubert did from Madame Bovary. He eschews the singsong voice of the know it all Chorus, or for that matter the Omniscient Narrator, or the average "honest man" writing the plain gentlemanly style of those in charge. He stands up, because he uses his own name in the byline and posts in the clear, at his Corner on the The Philanthropic Initiative's website. He does not go behind closed doors; he does not shut out those who are merely concerned citizens. He takes the whole matter public, as a matter of public moment, and let's us work through these difficult, indeed impossible, moral issues, as we might have watched in Athens the fate of Oedipus, Medea, or Creon. Or as we watch Willy Loman in Death of Salesman, or the industrialist making defective fighter planes in All My Sons.
Capitalism on a global scale has, in a rapidly moving decade, created moral conflict that cannot be laid to rest with speeches about good and evil where we are good and they are bad. Our moral traditions, and our democratic traditions, are strained past the point of rupture, as we adjust to a world run from above by the guys with Shoe Companies, Software Firms, Oil Companies, by them and their public and private servants, including us, those of us who serve them as Moral Monitors and Charitable Consultants, that they might save our world and their own souls into the bargain. We need new forms of public discourse to help us work through and reinvent our demoractic heritage of free speech, free assembly and free-hearted citizenship. Caritas as well as strategic plans. Kindness, and the gene for altruism, along with PR and strategic philanthropic hand-washing. We know that the American Patiot's Act did not single American Patriots out for repression. It called us to action. To engage in this conversation, openly and in the presence of wealth and power, is more than a person's career would be worth, were corporate power despotic. Peter did stand up. He sets an example for me, and for you too. His essays are why you can find me in the clear, as well as in my carnival outfits, and can reach me if you have wish, whether you wish me well or not. Let's come out of the closed rooms. Let's discuss the issues as openly as we can, given our mixed obligations, to self, family, corporation, students, clients, country, and to our fellow citizens of other countries, including those kids in the sweatshops. Those who know don't say, and those who say don't know. Peter has shown us one way to respect these conflicting obligations, the way of tragedy. I am testing the way of satire and carnival. In that spirit, let me say to Peter that he can have a job here in Wealth Bondage any time he wants, as the Fire Eater. He can work from inside Weber's Iron Cage, high on a pole, while the crowd cheers. Better him than me. Tragedy is too grim. I would rather throw a party and have all my friends come over in costumes, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. But then I am not in Peter's league, just honored to have him as a friend. And by the way, come Halloween, if you and your kids are in Boston, with your costumes, Peter is a pretty good host himself. He makes plenty of fresh popcorn, and has for years.
That I Might be Corrected
Note, this was written about Peter's work from memory; the details have formed their own picture in my mind; and I have not tried to sort through his essays like Sherlock Holmes, or St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. I am sure that Peter was writing about many people, both real and fictional; I have merged material from several of his essays to make one story of it all, to make the moral fable easier to tell. My apologies, if I have seemed to cast stones at any person. Frankly, that is why I prefer masks and pantomine, in the style of Punch and Judy. Whatever Peter and his clients have done, I have done worse, for less money. Or, if I have not, "Candidia Cruikshanks" has. This, really, is not about any one client, company, foundation, consultant, or philanthropic strategem or strategy; it is about the state of democracy and the discourse of democracy in the age of global capitalism, and an ever-growing disparity of wealth and power. I presumed, or assumed, that we are free, even now, to speak out openly as citizens, subject to debate and correction. I trust that Peter and his clients would actively support the spirit of openness, while continuing the conversation to correct my many errors, of both omission and commission, and help me see the light. The Tutor would kneel in his turn, for chastisement that he might reform and sin no more. I look forward to seeing what good will come from the Philanthropist's gifts; may he rival Carnegie and his libraries! That said, anyone want to try the lobster pizza? It is on Mistress Candidia; all you can eat, and plenty of free beer from our good friends at Coors.