Thursday, December 10, 2020

Mrs. Gates Still Doesn't Get It, Still.

Last week the New York Times decided to offer one more glowing portrait of Melinda Gates, unintentionally underlining the work of rich folk critic Anand Giridharadas and explaining, again, that she doesn't get the problem of Gates riches in education.

She opens with an Emerson quote from her valedictory high school graduation speech about success being the knowledge that one person has breathed easier because you have lived. That quote, writes David Gelles, "is still ringing in her ears." 

“That’s been my definition of success since high school,” she said. “So if I have an extra dollar, or a thousand dollars, or a million dollars, or in my case, which is absurd, a billion dollars to plow back into making the world better for other people, that’s what I’m going to do.”

This is such a Giridharadian quote-- note that she gets her vast wealth is absurd, but her thought is that she should "plow back" the money rather than contemplate, critique, and act to change the system that allowed her top extract that much money in the first place. These are our modern philanthropists--they can grasp that they have a shit ton of money, and even consider that they ought to do something useful for it, but they can't question that they deserve to have it in the first place, that it is, in fact, theirs theirs all theirs. Philanthropy is swell, but philanthropy set up so that they control their money and remain the arbiters of what should and should not be done with it.

The interview focuses primarily on the medical stuff, and there are plenty of reasons to question the Gates involvement in the medical world (here's a good piece to start with). 

Asked about disinformation, she views social media as the culprit, and somehow talks about that without sharing any culpability with technology to enable such baloney spreading. She knows that she and Bill have been the target of conspiracy theories, and she just figures that because people are afraid and "looking to point to somebody or some thing or some institution." She's certainly not wrong, but I note that she doesn't include "vast multinational corporation" on the list, nor suggest there's anything they've done to attract this sort of attention. 

Gelles asks the "does big philanthropy have too much power" question, Here's the first part of her answer:

I think that’s a critique that is well worth listening to and looking at. In our philanthropic work, there isn’t a single thing that we don’t work on in partnership with governments. Because at the end of the day, it is governments that scale things up and that can help the most people. There is a healthy ecosystem that needs to exist between government, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society. And when you get that ecosystem working at its best, no one party in that ecosystem has too much power.

I object here. If your philanthropy can "partner with" a government, as if you're pretty much equals, you have too much power. If you are on an equal scale with government, the private sector, and civil society, you have too much power. And there's another unspoken thought here--modern philanthropists may give up money, but they don't give up power. 

The second half of this answer is where education pops up:

You know, if Bill and I had had more decision-making authority in education, maybe we would’ve gotten farther in the United States. But we haven’t. Some of the things that we piloted or tried got rejected, or didn’t work, and I think there’s a very healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers’ unions and mayors and city councils that make those education decisions. I wish the U.S. school system was better for all kids.

Yikes. I mean, yikes. First of all, it's not "some of the things"-- all of the things that the Gates have tried in education, from small schools to the Common Core, have failed. Yes, they got rejected, in the same way the average person rejects stewed liver covered with toad wart dressing--they were bad. (And lets not forget that sometimes, rather than being rejected, the Gates just walked out on projects in the middle, leaving someone else holding the bag.) And whatever their many problems were, the biggest problem was not that Bill and Melinda Gates didn't have enough power over the system. Note also that her "very healthy ecosystem" includes pretty much everybody. If everyone else had just let the Gates be in charge, it would have been fine! Yikes. After all this time, all this money, and all this failure, she still doesn't understand that when it comes to education, they are amateurs who don't know enough about how education works and who don't bother to talk to actual experts (without checking to make sure they're sympathetic and then handing them a big pile of money first, which tends to blunt the critical faculties --looking at you NEA and AFT). 

She's asked about changing the tax code so that Bill pays more, and she thinks that's a good idea because if you benefit from the system in this country "you have an obligation to give back," and again, that is markedly different from recognizing that you have an obligation to not take so very much in the first place. And she's not done underlining that blind spot. Asked about how she reconciles her enormous privilege with "the acute suffering that so many people are experiencing," she says this:

It’s something I’ve pondered a lot. There’s no explanation how you get to be in this situation of privilege. There’s just none.

Well, yes, there is. Your husband made a bunch of pointed business decisions, and made some financial decisions, and now you're richer than the entire planet. Yes, it took a whole complex network of luck and timing and fortune to tee up your husband's work, but Bill Gates has worked very hard at becoming absurdly wealthy. 

This is the part where that headline about "letting her heart break" comes in. She visits poor people in far away places, hangs out with Mother Theresa, and cries a lot, and then contemplates what the person shares with her and "what I learned and how do I plow that back into the work to try and make the world better." Again with the plowing back.

And look, I get it. She could be spending her days shopping for designer dresses and ordering gold-plated toilets and the Gates Foundation could be spending millions of dollars on garish portraits of Bill to mount in one of his ninety-five country clubs. They could be strikingly evil people shamelessly basking in pools of liquid silver. They could be dumping their money into dopey projects like missions to Mars. I also get that being incredibly wealthy probably has unavoidable effects on how you perceive the world and how your own immediate world treats you. 

Hubris doesn't always come with ugly swagger, and lacking a clue about critical items doesn't always look like bell-gong dopiness. And no matter how rich you are or are not, it's human to want to Do Good Things without making yourself uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. And sometimes carelessness looks poised and pretty.

But boy would I love to read a Gates profile in which either of them said, "You know, we just realized that we just don't know enough about education to be meddling with it. We have a lot of damage that we've done and need to make up for, and we're sincerely sorry about that. We have learned that we don't know the magic solution to making schools better for all students, and so we're going to step back and get out of the way of the serious professionals who have devoted their entire adult lives to that work. We plan to just shut up and listen to them." 

That would be a fun profile, but I'm not holding my breath. 

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