As far as the journalistic practice of creating giant tabulations of “the best” things goes, Good Magazine’s list of “the most important, exciting, and innovative people, ideas, & projects making our world better (http://awesome.good.is/good100/good100.html) is actually ridiculously informative. More than half of the things on it I’ve never heard of, nor do they seem deliberately obscure or mostly trivial. Among the list of things I learned about: domestic microfinance, Passivhaus certification (a super-rigorous German form of LEED), the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Google’s Project 10^100, for which, sadly, it is now too late to submit my idea of “putting dry cereal in one bowl and milk in a different bowl”.
But, since we can all tacitly acknowledge that good things are good, I would like to articulate an obscure unease that grips me whenever I encounter social entrepreneurship. There is something simultaneously very exciting but also rather obnoxious about “world-changers”. Three examples of what I mean: 1. idealist.org, 2. worldchanging.com (which is kind of an awesome website), 3. the above-mentioned Good Magazine.
I once read this book called Generations, written in 1991 by corporate consulting types / Capitol Hill advisors William Strauss & Neil Howe, that outlined an incredibly contrived and convoluted historical model of “generational cycles”, in which American history is divided into 4 sorts of generations, each with its own clearly apparent personality type and internal trajectory. These sorts are said to cycle over and over, leading to a theory of history that has a set pattern of resonances which is almost totally implausible but really fun to pretend is true. So for example, Generation X was sort of a late-20th century echo of the disaffected artsy expats of the Lost Generation (the Hemingway & Gertrude Stein crew), Baby Boomers have been a new iteration of Puritans, and people born between the years 1982 & 2003 are slated to become the new “Greatest Generation” (paradoxically both as great & greater??). This last one, the book predicts, will be a flock of kids who are explicitly concerned with engineering sweeping solutions to global problems — high-energy, practical, optimistic in the face of massive obstacles, and eager to build new types of institutions.
Sometimes I feel like books like this actually create what they purport to be describing, because this book is far from the only instance that today’s 20-somethings have been informed by politicians, college deans, and leaders of today like Strauss & Howe that they are on their way to becoming the “leaders of tomorrow”. So even though 18.5% of the leaders of tomorrow are starting their illustrious careers with chronic unemployment (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/youth.nr0.htm) maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that Strauss & Howe’s personality diagnosis of certain kinds of people of my generation seems sorta kinda true, especially for something that was written when the oldest of us were only 9.
The idea of the social entrepreneur is now fully born. The social entrepreneur is someone who, to paraphrase Bunny Colvin, a character from The Wire, comes to do good and stays to do well. This sounds cynical, but it doesn’t have to be — there are people who want to do cool stuff who also want to lead lives that are somewhere in the general ballpark of “middle class”. Nothing is necessarily wrong with this. Much of the time, privilege is understood both as a sort of springboard for the moral imperative to do good works, and as a practical prerequisite for doing them effectively. In a world where “nonprofit” is apparently now a name for a career trajectory, where Social Justice & Peace Studies is an actual major you can get, and where the Peace Corps or other volunteerism looks awesome on a law school application, too much self-sacrifice in the pursuit of goals that are fundamentally other-oriented is perceived as pretty damn foolish.
And with the professionalization of “caring”, well-educated people of roughly our age bracket seem to have developed a sort of semi-ironic unofficial consensus about the notion of good. Good Magazine is Exhibit 1 of this attitude. Its tagline – “for people who give a damn” – posits a fundamental divide between people who do and do not care. What these 2 comprehensive groups do or do not care about is left to us to imagine. But this blank space contains a phantom – the thing that some people give a damn about, and others don’t, are things like locovorism, greywater, carbon sequestration, the reinvigoration of local community, benign techno-innovations, ecological footprints. The ironic undertone of Good as a title comes from an acknowledgement, via blatant simplification, that a class of incipient historically specific technical and social innovations cannot be comprehensively labeled “good” without it being partly silly.
But what gives Good Magazine’s marketing strategy its edge is its haha-but-no-really division of the world into those who care and those who do not. It is this self-congratulatory position of populist philanthropy that gives me a great deal of pause, that reaches far beyond the bounds of this one little publication.
Populist philanthropy is what I call (as of like 45 seconds ago) the idea that anyone can be of some benefit to everyone. Some DIY/open source enthusiasm + old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit + an acute awareness of social and economic inequality = the belief that simple ideas and actions can transform complex situations. Example: the above-mentioned Project 10^100, to which 150,000 people submitted “ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible”. For some reason I feel the need to appeal from authority: after spending a year and a half living and working in a devastated neighborhood in New Orleans with thousands and thousands of volunteers from colleges all over North America, I’m confident in my belief that this kind of thinking is not just a thing from the Internet, but is active in the real world.
I believe my vague discomfort comes from the ease with which this ethic converts a world of perceived haves and have-nots into a world of cares and care-nots. “Good” is equated with caring – or that creepily secularized expression, “being passionate” – about a socially transformative cause. To endure this double-classification, the middle-class citizen-activist finds a new way of positioning themselves at the top of a social hierarchy: the havers and the carers in one. Money and good intentions become the primary qualifications for personal virtue.
What this recipe means for our collective quality of life in the future remains completely unclear. It seems a little much to congratulate ourselves for being in a position to do good and – gasp – actually doing it. And especially so when the very people whose lives you hope to improve are potentially the same people you scorn as not giving a damn.