Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Purity Traps

I haven't commented here (or in the Twitter round-up) on the kerfuffle over Barack Obama's upcoming $400,000 speech. I know what I think about it (most of the time), but today Doug Mulder at The Weekly Sift said it for me perfectly.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, liberals could really use a saint about now, and Obama would make a good one. I would love it if he spent the rest of his life living humbly, saying wise things, and inspiring a new generation of social justice warriors.

On the other hand, I’m always skeptical when we raise standards just in time for them to apply to the black guy. Ex-presidents command large fees on the speaking circuit, and have done so at least since Ronald Reagan’s $2 million tour of Japan. They also sell a lot of books (that goes back to Ulysses S. Grant) and make big bucks that way. Most of them haven’t really needed the money (Grant did), so foregoing these big paydays doesn’t seem like that much to ask. But why start with Obama?

Any big cash conduit could be used for bribery, so we ought to stay alert for that. But while $400K would be a huge amount of money to all but the richest Americans, it seems to be the going rate for the small number of speakers who have Obama’s level of star power. (By the way: This was also my opinion of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Getting her on your speaking list put your conference or lecture series on the map. That was worth the price to a lot of organizations, without any assumption that they’d get favorable treatment in some future administration.)
"Two minds" describes my thoughts and feelings as well, but weighted heavily toward the "why are you only talking about this now?" end of the scale. 

Mulder then goes on to introduce a term I'm not sure I've heard before: "purity trap":
One way conservatives like to tie liberals in knots is by building purity traps. Isn’t it hypocritical that Al Gore has a big home that uses a lot of electricity, or that Bill McKibben flies, or that Warren Buffett tries to minimize his company’s tax bill, or that all of us who claim to care about the homeless aren’t living in cardboard boxes ourselves?

We need to stop cooperating with this kind of stuff. There is no limit to how pure you could possibly be, and no one who lives inside an unjust system can be entirely untainted by that injustice. If Obama decides to go for sainthood, I’ll cheer him on. But I think that should be his decision.
YES! Exactly.


Michael Leddy said...

It surprises me to read anyone saying that criticism of cashing in is starting with Obama. Reagan was derided for his millions-making trip to Japan. From The New York Times (1989): “Former Presidents haven’t always comported themselves with dignity after leaving the Oval Office. But none have plunged so blatantly into pure commercialism.” As the Los Angeles Times has reported, Bill Clinton “changed the rules” by asking for higher than usual fees. The Daily Beast has written about George W. Bush’s speechifying on “the buck-raking circuit.” And Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs were subject to considerable derision in the 2016 campaign. Criticism began long before Obama. For me, it’s not good enough to point out, as Mulder does, that everyone has does it — that, to my mind, is part of the problem.

I figured out earlier today: someone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would have to work for 26.5 years to make $400,000. Something’s out of whack. (And yes, a mega-star can make that or much more for a single TV episode. Which also means that something is out of whack.) I’m not saying you’re wrong, Pat, only that I see it differently.

Michael Leddy said...

Oops — “that everybody does it.”

Daughter Number Three said...

I don't disagree - two minds, as I said - it's a sick system for sure. What do you think of the purity trap concept?

Michael Leddy said...

I’m with you on that. A one-time reader of my blog used to play those games with me. We’re all participants in structures not of our own making. But I do think it’s important for people to make an effort to (I’ll use the clichĂ©) walk the walk.