Home  |   Jihad Watch  |   Horowitz  |   Archive  |   Columnists  |     DHFC  |  Store  |   Contact  |   Links  |   Search Thursday, May 24, 2018
FrontPageMag Article
Write Comment View Comments Printable Article Email Article
NBC's 'Philanthropist' Offers Bad Economics, Worse Melodrama By: S. T. Karnick
The American Culture | Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Philanthropist (NBC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. EDT) is a bad idea for a television series, but in the execution it manages to be even worse. In fact, in making extravagant claims about the value of philanthropy, the show actually undermines the very things that make such giving possible.

Telling the story of an emotionally troubled American billionaire who travels the world in order to help desperately poor strangers in need, the show manages to condescend to the philanthropist himself, the society that allowed him to become rich, and the poor people he helps.

It condescends to the philanthropist, Teddy Rist (Phillip Purefoy) by positing that his quest was caused by an emotional reaction to a devastating personal loss--the death of his young son and subsequent breakup of his marriage. Near the beginning of the pilot episode, Rist establishes this theme strongly by saying that few people are happy these days, even people with money.

That will strike many viewers as a quite offensive notion, as it posits that happiness is based on an accumulation of material things and creature comforts. Even worse, it is false in all of its particulars: people in the United States are wealthier than ever, despite the current recession, and if material things and creature comforts made for happiness, we'd be happier than ever.

In addition to being untrue to life, this premise undermines the dramatic value of the show. By positing Rist's philanthropy as an emotional reaction to a gnawing need within him for meaning in his life, the premise diminishes the moral praiseworthiness and dramatic power of his actions by characterizing them as not really freely chosen, as not flowing naturally from his character. Hence he cannot deserve full moral credit for his actions, as he's really using them to fulfill his emotional needs.

Given its premise, the show can hardly help but condescend to the poor people he helps, as these ethnic people in Africa, Asia, and the like obviously need the assistance of this superior Caucasian person. Yes, their troubles are sometimes caused by natural events, such as a hurricane in Nigeria, but natural disasters in wealthy places such as the United States don't result in the kind of devastation we see in The Philanthropist.

Obviously sensing this, the show makers try to forestall any complaints of racism by having Rist's business partner--designated as co-CEO of their multibillion-dollar natural resources investment firm--played by an African-American, Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order). But that is an obvious sop to Hollywood's absurdly unrealistic (though well-meaning) affirmative action plan in which African-Americans are continually cast in roles of corporate and government managers and common-sense conscience figures who keep flighty white people in line (those that aren't gang members or prostitutes).

The unreality and stereotyped nature of that premise destroys its effectiveness, and in the present case it serves only to underscore the artificiality and didacticism of the show's concept and story lines.

The first episode of The Philanthropist even tries to blame businesses for everything that's wrong in Nigeria, with a Nigerian official claiming that the rebel activities there are "a rebellion against the very corporate intrusion that companies like your routinely perpetrate on sovereign nations like Nigeria.

That's absolute rot. Nigeria's entire economy depends on Western corporations and consumers making the nation's oil and other resources worth something. To claim that the one thing that brings wealth to that nation creates turmoil is to argue that the people there are better off scraping off a living in subsistence farming and starving to death whenever the weather isn't just right.

In attempting to absolve the Nigerians of responsibility for their nation's problems, the people behind The Philanthropist paint Nigerians as inferior beings who cannot even respond reasonably to being saved from starvation.

Later in that same episode, Rist is bullied by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, whose presence in Nigeria is spectacularly inexplicable but of course thoroughly sinister. This scene adds the United States government to the disruptive American forces whose involvement in Nigeria is the cause of the nation's problems. The Philanthropist exemplifies the phenomenon noted by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick when she noted that many people in the United States always seem eager to "blame America first."

The second episode, "Myanmar," has Rist explicitly asking whether economic sanctions against oppressive governments do more harm to the government or to the people of the nation thus punished. Naturally, Rist ultimately comes to the conclusion that his corporation must not be tainted by even a secondhand relationship with such a nation by doing business with a company that does business in Myanmar.

His partner and co-CEO refers to this as "the right thing, the moral thing, the financially responsible thing." It's certainly the sentimental and most immediately sympathetic response, but the morality of the situation is much more complex than that, just as Rist initially thought. After all, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran have not become more humane by being cut off from Western investments, or as The Philanthropist calls them, "corporate intrusion."

The speech by the Nigerian official mentioned earlier exemplifies another element of the show, the characterization of Rist as hubristic and somewhat clueless about the practical difficulties involved in getting help to people, which requires regular rebukes and object lessons by the locals. Hence the locals are portrayed as morally superior and more practical than Rist. But if that's so, why are they so poor?

The answer, of course, is in the Nigerian official's rant: Evil corporations from the West exploit the nation and strip it of its resources. But that's obvious nonsense, as those resources are worth nothing to the locals unless they can sell them to people who can make some use of them. Hence the show is mired in contradictions in addition to being untrue to life.

Finally, The Philanthropist condescends to the society that makes possible the riches Mr. Rist distributes. In an interview for a television news show, Rist begins to talk about how much his corporation gives to charity, and then stops, disgusted that 1.9 percent is so paltry. He storms off the set and heads off to Nigeria to "look them in the eye' and personally deliver a large shipment of necessities such as food and blankets.

This is false in two important ways in addition to the aforementioned conceit of Rist using his philanthropy to fill a psychological and emotional need.

First, the notion that corporations do good mainly by giving to charity is false and pernicious. Rist's company buys and sells natural resources such as oil, natural gas, etc. That in itself does society an incredible amount of good--which is why people pay for it.

Thus any profit that the corporation makes that does not go back to its shareholders in the form of (very well-earned) dividends should go back into doing the good things that the corporation is already doing, or other ones which the firm can do well. The big amounts of money the corporation earns, after all, come about because they are fulfilling needs and desires which people are willing to pay for.

Yes, charity is a fine thing, but the real function and ability of corporations is to make money for their stockholders, which they can only legally accomplish by selling goods and services people want or need. In fact, many corporations have been notably pernicious in their philanthropic endeavors, often funding organizations that undermine the market system, personal liberty, and freedom of association that make the increasing wealth of the nation possible. We'd all be much better off if they stuck to what they do best.

Corporations make money by doing social good (unless assisted by government in making money from unnecessary or harmful things), and the surplus they generate--their profits--goes to additional investment (which leads to more good or decreases the corporation's value) or to shareholders, who may then distribute it as they choose. The latter, over the entire economy, are the source of much of the nation's monetary and in-kind philanthropy.

Even if a corporation gives no money at all directly to philanthropic endeavors, it cannot help but do good, as all the money corporations make can only go to reinvestment, debt pay down, distributions to shareholders, or taxes. Of all these categories, the only one not especially likely to do good is the tax payments.

The second false and condescending notion in The Philanthropist regarding American business is the conceit that the forcible redirection of corporate profits by an individual is morally good and proper. It is, in fact, quite wrong for Rist to divert even what he considers a piddling amount--1.8 percent--to pet charities that will make him feel better about himself.

That is an outrageously elitist notion, that Rist knows more about what's good for society than his stockholders do. The money he gives to charity would be much more productive, as noted earlier, by being reinvested, paying down debt, or distributed to shareholders. All of those things have the potential to create further economic value, from which all of society ultimately benefits.

Rist is doing exactly what governments do, forcibly extracting money from other people and claiming moral superiority for doing so. He does show courage, determination, and self-sacrifice in bringing help to people in need, but that doesn't make what he's doing morally right.

Finally, the notion that what really makes the world a better place is philanthropy is entirely false.

What makes the world better, at least in simple material terms and in the creation of opportunities for personal fulfillment, is increasing wealth. And although many people--such as the producers of The Philanthropist--make extravagant claims about how philanthropic activities created various breakthrough developments, the reality is that the wealth of nations is created by the daily effort on the part of millions of people to earn their keep by doing things that benefit other people sufficiently that the latter are willing to pay for them.

Philanthropy is a good and fine thing indeed, but it's a choice best made by individuals to give of their own wealth in a compassionate hope of doing good for others. Forcible extraction of other people's money, even for charitable purposes, is not philanthropy; it's tyranny.

Like its protagonist, The Philanthropist means well, but its premises undermine the very things that make philanthropy possible.

S. T. Karnick is editor of the American Culture website.

We have implemented a new commenting system. To use it you must login/register with disqus. Registering is simple and can be done while posting this comment itself. Please contact gzenone [at] horowitzfreedomcenter.org if you have any difficulties.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Home | Blog | Horowitz | Archives | Columnists | Search | Store | Links | CSPC | Contact | Advertise with Us | Privacy Policy

Copyright©2007 FrontPageMagazine.com