"Which is more revolting?" an editor e-mailed me last week, "Rupert Murdoch spending $44 million for a triplex at 834 Fifth Avenue with 20 rooms and a monthly maintenance of $21,469.07, as narrated on the front page of the newspapers, or King Mswati III of Swaziland spending $690,000 on a Daimler-Chrysler Maybach 62?"
Mention of the Great Beast buying his three-floor pad on Fifth Ave. sent me sauntering down Memory Lane. I think Murdoch had one floor of that building back in the late 1970s, when his only properties in the United States were the Star and a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas. Then he bought the New York Post and duly made it onto either the cover of Time or Newsweek, I can’t remember which. Maybe both. He was depicted as King Kong, clinging to the Empire State building.
Then Murdoch bought the Village Voice, where I was working at the time. He came down to 80 University Place, pledged not to fire the editor, climbed back into his limo, went back uptown and fired the editor the next day. Jack Newfield and I took a taxi uptown, knocked on the door of his apartment at, I think, 834 Fifth, and Murdoch opened it with a broad smile, saying everything was back the way it had been and that the editor could stay on another year.
Here we are today, and I just heard that Jack died of kidney cancer earlier this week. Though we later battled mightily over Israel, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, he was supportive when I was fresh off the boat at the Voice in the early 1970s.
Rupert has fired hundreds more editors and now has three floors instead of one. I don’t grudge him his triplex. He’s the one who has to climb up and down endless stairs or wait for the elevator so he can go to bed.
Besides, there are so many billionaires around these days it’s hard to be affronted by Murdoch throwing his spare change around.
King Mswati’s costly Daimler-Chrysler doesn’t bother me much either. Last time I looked out of the window, I counted four old Chryslers of mine, spanning the glory years between 1959 and 1967, and I bet they all are more fun to drive, more reliable and certainly less costly to fix than Mswati’s latest rig. It’s up to the people of Swaziland. If this is the car (he has many others) that finally sprains the camel’s back, they can shoot him, put his fleet up for auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., early next year and have a good party on the proceeds. Let the people decide. They’re the ones who have to look at their king driving in and out of his palace.
When it comes to moral outrage we all have our specialties. To me there’s more evil festering in one square millimeter of the balance sheet of a major pharmaceutical company than in all the sheet metal of every car of every African tyrant of the past one hundred years.
It’s a matter of judicious allocation of one’s yearly moral outrage budget. In the old days, that budget was way bigger. People didn’t have to work so hard, and so they had more time to get pissed off at the unfairness of it all, to sneer at the gross-outs of the rich. Those were the days when people gasped in outrage as Craig Claiborne reported on the front page of the New York Times that he and Pierre Franey dropped $4,000 on a 31-course, nine-wine dinner at Chez Denis in Paris, a feast offered by American Express at a charity auction.
This was back in November of 1975, when columnists kept whole stables of moral high horses pawing the ground in their stalls. Espying the $4,000 binge, Harriet Van Horne stabbed furiously at her typewriter, "This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends ) an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong , morally, esthetically and in every other way." Over the column I remember one editor ran the head "Edunt et Vomant" (they eat and they vomit). It must have been in the pre-Murdoch New York Post when Dolly Schiff’s op-ed page looked like the reading room of the Athenaeum.
Oh, for the Seventies, when optimism abounded and, as Steve Earle said, they tried to have cocaine classified as a vegetable. There was more social idealism back then, too. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, demon foe of government fraud and waste, used to give out Golden Fleece awards. Month after month they’d make the papers, and the sums weren’t so big. These days, you have to steal at least half a billion and have the name Halliburton on your corporate letterhead even to get noticed on the CNN newstape. Oh, I know John McCain makes a big show of denouncing his colleagues for priming the defense budget with pork. But it doesn’t raise a stir and only irks his fellow senators because they know he doesn’t really mean it and, when he’s finished grandstanding, will vote the budget.
Do I have a line in the sand? OK, I do. I resent, and I hereby protest money in the defense budget going for war crimes, which, as stipulated in a 1996 law for which Republicans voted, could put the commander in chief in the death cell. Under U.S. law. What war crimes? In Iraq, they’re happening every day. In the recent glorious conquest of Fallujah, irked at the reports of casualties from Fallujah General Hospital, the U.S. military shut "the propaganda weapon" down. U.S. soldiers tied up the medical staff and patients.
Now, as Noam Chomsky, alluding to the Falluja hospital shut-down, reminds us, the Geneva Conventions state: "Fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict." So put Bush and the defense secretary he recently declared to be a sensitive and wonderful human being on trial for their lives. Who cares about Murdoch’s triplex or Mswati’s cars? There are much, much worse expenditures, rolling out day after day, to get furious about.
ANIMALS DON’T VOTE
The end of the tax year approaches, and mass mailings cram my letterbox, many of them urgently seeking write-off dollars to keep Noah’s Ark afloat. In next year’s calendars, affecting photographs of endangered species clamor for our attention: black rhinos, elephants, blue whales, gorillas, condors, otters, hairy-nosed wombats, western giant elands. And people do the right thing, hauling out their checkbooks, taking their charitable deductions.
But as the big conservation outfits will tell you, the costs of protecting habitats soar up and up. Reportedly, in Africa, they double every year. The great goal of all conservation is sustainability, but charitable conservation by definition is not sustainable. Noah’s Ark is sinking faster than the donors can bale.
In 1996, Mike Korchinsky, 34 years old at the time, sat in an eco-tour campsite in Kenya, looked around him and, as he remembers, concluded that "high-end ecotourism clearly wasn’t saving the land I was on".
Being an ardent conservationist and also a businessman who’d made a big pile in market consultancy, Bay Area-based Korchinsky started looking at the various models dreamed up in recent decades to save species and environment. Ecotourism means putting guards round a forest or a stretch of savannah, and coaxing rich people to come and take photographs of protected nature. It’s low volume and, for the Africans servicing the tourists, it offers low dollar jobs and not many of them. "They’re not jobs Africans want," Korchinsky says, "making beds, cleaning toilets. The cost of the tours may go up, but the wages stay the same." In other words, the locals don’t have any great stake in the eco-tourism, or in deterring the poachers or the charcoal burners waiting for the tour or the guards to move on.
"Sustainable" is always the buzzword, but most of the models — marketing Amazon rainforest products, for example — haven’t worked out that way. Similarly, Korchinksy points out that donating 1 percent of one’s profits, as many busineses do, means you might need a $250 million-a-year business to support one sanctuary.
Korchinsky kept circling around a few core premises. If you can’t depend on the charity of good people and good government, then you have to look at a self-sustaining business model, one that the locals could connect with. "People act in their best interests, whether they’re wealthy Americans or poor Africans. Everyone wants a job, a better life for their kids. So how do you connect jobs and education to preserving wildlife and wilderness?"
Korchinsky leased and, in 1999, ultimately bought 80,000 acres in Kenya, about 100 miles northwest of Mombasa, off the highway to Nairobi. It’s a stretch of land that connects two national parks. Simultaneously he sat down with the elders of the two tribal groups, some 35,000 in all, who lived on the boundary of his land. He outlined his motive — a preserve — and his plan, namely to build a factory, hence provide jobs. "Jobs are great politics. Remember, animals don’t vote, but if you offer jobs, the local politicians support you."
Korchinsky’s quid pro quo was that the elders agree to protect the land and the wildlife. The elders saw the point. Poaching stopped, and Korchinsky’s small ranger force patrolling the preserve is unarmed, unique in Africa. It’s not a big factory, but the 56 jobs have a substantial multiplier effect in terms of economic benefit in the area, and Korchinsky has made available 5,000 acres, which locals can buy into, at a dollar an acre.
The factory makes high end T-shirts, which is the other end of Korchinsky’s business plan. "Marginal places are where we tolerate wildlife and marginal people. Now we want to connect people here to these marginal places." Korchinsky’s T-shirts, under his Wildlife Works logo, form the connection. "Brands in modern times have become increasingly disconnected from place, but we want to make people aware of where our T-shirts are made, to connect them with the wildlife and the place."
Wildlife Works started selling its T-shirts in 2001. "We wanted to say to the consumer, the factory is working, the wildlife is coming back." And, in fact, the moment poaching stopped, animals started moving over the preserve from one park to another with an alacrity that startled Korchinsky, who says it took only two years for the eco-system, previously ravaged by hunting and charcoal burning, to recover. The elephants came back first, these days, 500 of them, then the lions, of which there are now five prides, and beyond them, leopards, giraffes, wild dogs and, in all, 47 species of large mammal, including four endangered species.
"The idea of a green consumer is an oxymoron. Green people don’t consume. It’s hard to build a business on people who love you and won’t buy your product. We’re after an audience that’s not engaged right now in environmental issues." And how do you persuade the 20-year-old girl in the mall to buy a Wildlife Works T-shirt? Wildlife Works tries to have point-of-sale signage to tell the story, and has persuaded celebrities like Charlize Theron and Paris Hilton to wear their product. (http://www.wildlifeworks.com)
Korchinsky says that the plan called for them to do somewhere between $2.5 and $5 million in sales to support the sanctuary and that he’s "encouraged". Now he’s trying to get some giant corporations, normally horrified at the idea of reminding consumers where their factories are, to recognize the potential of a positive link between their brand and the place it was made.
"I’m not," he insists, "a person who always thinks the business approach is always the best answer to a problem. In health care or the arts, it’s not." Can his success be duplicated? That’s hard to say. Korchinsky is a smart man who had the empathy to persuade the elders in the Taita and Duruma tribes that here was someone who could look at conservation with their interests in mind, and not just draw a line in the dirt, put an armed ranger behind it and tell them to Keep Out. That’s no way to sustain anything, but it’s sad how many people think it’s the only solution.