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Giving Wisely & Raising Awareness

November, 2013
By John Huckans

Gideon Planish, an almost forgotten novel by Sinclair Lewis, is a merciless satire of what turned out to be one of America’s major growth industries.  Lewis expanded on a theme that was anticipated by Charles Dickens’ irate essay entitled The Begging-Letter Writer:

The amount of money he annually diverts from wholesome and useful purposes in the United Kingdom, would be a set-off against the Window Tax. He is one of the most shameless frauds and impositions of this time. . . I, the writer of this paper, have been, for some time, a chosen receiver of Begging Letters. For fourteen years, my house has been made as regular a Receiving House for such communications as any one of the great branch Post-Offices is for general correspondence. . . He always belongs to a Corresponding-Society of Begging-Letter Writers.  Any one who will, may ascertain this fact. Give money to-day in recognition of a begging-letter, – no matter how unlike a common begging-letter, – and for the next fortnight you will have a rush of such communications. . . The poor never write these letters. Nothing could be more unlike their habits. The writers are public robbers; and we who support them are parties to their depredations. They trade upon every circumstance within their knowledge that affects us, public or private, joyful or sorrowful. . .

Dickens was complaining about individual frauds who turned extraction of money, through the emotionally-charged exploitation of natural feelings of charity and generosity, into a chain of cottage industries.

Writing in the 1940s, Sinclair Lewis's novel Gideon Planish features an eponymous main character who combines his deficiency in scholarly attainments with a natural gift for high-flown rhetoric to become Professor of Rhetoric and Speech at a small mid-western college. Not long after being promoted to Dean and shortly before being outed (and ousted) as an academic fraud, Gideon discovers his real talent lies in fund-raising on the institutional level.

He joins the Heskett Foundation, a profitable little mid-western begging shop that raises lots of money by basically telling people that rural education is a good thing. Bounced for overplaying his hand, he goes to New York and is hired as the executive director of the Association to Promote Eskimo Culture, Inc., based on the strength of his vague knowledge that Eskimos lived somewhere in the North, lived in snow houses and ate blubber.

His stay with APEC, Inc., of short duration, leads to some work for the Antinomians, or the True New Reformed Tabernacle of the Penitents Saints of the Assembly of God.  From then on it’s one “charity” or lobbying group after another until he lands in the big time.  One such group, the Citizens’ Conference on Constitutional Crises in the Commonwealth or “Cizkon”, scares money out of people who feel threatened by the rising power of labor unions, another is called the Every Man a Priest Fraternity, and so on.

One of his role models is the Hon. Deacon Ernest Wheyfish, ex-congressman, author of Make Them Pay While They Pray, and head of something called the Blessed to Give Brotherhood.  From Deacon Wheyfish Gideon learns that it’s not about the mission, it’s all about the message, the method and the money, and in a rousing speech before a convention of fund-raisers, including the “distinguished Dr. Elmer Gantry”, the Deacon says, among other things:

As many of you know, philanthropy, in hard dollars and cents, already ranks eighth among the major industries of America... but it ought to rank first... What can a man purchase... that will afford him such spiritual benefit... as the knowledge that he is permitting the better organization executives the means and the leisure to go around doing good...  The raising of funds must be a separate calling... And yet some of you, my friends, tend to forget this... and go around daydreaming about what good you’d do if you only had the cash... instead of first raising the cash and then seeing if there’s some good you can do with it.

As war clouds gather in Europe, charity and religion take second seat to raising money for the purpose of telling people how and what they should think in matters of war, peace or public policy in general.  A new group is formed, the self-appointed Dynamos of Democratic Direction (DDD), to provide this guidance and leadership, and even though the members themselves can’t decide whether Hitler and Mussolini are devils incarnate, potential drinking-buddies, or something in between, no matter which way the wind blows they stand ready to lead the masses and will need plenty of money to do it.  In a memo to the head of the DDD, Gideon writes:

All ordinary citizens, especially those west of Buffalo, need instruction and direction in becoming thoroughly democratic from trained thinkers like ourselves. When we have given our democracy to the entire nation, then America will enforce it on the rest of the world...

While the world situation is becoming more complicated and morally fraught, Gideon visits his old college in the mid-west, feels the urge to nourish his academic  roots that were never strong to begin with, is offered the job of president of the college where he was once dean, and returns to New York to run the idea by his wife. What happens next?  You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

The contents of our own mail box (snail, e-mail and voice) confirm my suspicion that Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis were ahead of their time in pointing out there’s a lot of money to be made through the exploitation of guilt and fear.  And as we approach the Christmas season, charity fund-raising appeals become especially active. 

The March of Dimes campaign of my youth, in order to keep its executives and staff fully employed after polio was essentially eradicated, attached itself to other diseases.  I hope and expect that most of what they collect actually goes for medical purposes.   Years ago the American Cancer Society was an iconic charity nearly everyone gave to – nowadays fund-raising organizations with “cancer” in their names are without number.   I lost track years ago.   For a long time my wife has given to the Disabled American Veterans – and it comes as little surprise that in the past few years several new fund-raising enterprises have sprung up to exploit that vast reservoir of collective guilt.

If charities asking for money in the name of a disease actually turn over most of what they collect to medical research then I say more power to them.   However I do have my doubts, especially about those whose main purpose seems to be about “raising awareness …”   Raising awareness about almost anything is a booming industry these days.  So in a world where too many people struggle for food, we have recently been asked to give money to an organization that wants to make us aware of the danger of eating too much – or too little.

 I wonder what Dickens or Lewis would have to say about some of the newer and more creative ways of asking for money, especially all those well-timed dinner hour robo-calls with a very important message.  Begging letters, often with a New York or Washington (especially K or L Street) return address, are almost never opened – our own giving goes primarily to support local charitable and public service organizations.