Former President Bill Clinton is touring the talk shows selling his new book, Giving, and it’s giving me a headache. I don’t like the way Clinton co-opts corporate friendly, conservative policy and rhetoric and then brands it as a new form of liberalism. It’s as annoying to me as George W. Bush’s attempt to co-opt a social conscience from truly progressive proponents of democratic principles. In the case of Clinton’s new book, “Giving” just reminds me too much of Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism.” Clinton’s preaching of the civic duty of philanthropy sounds too much like Bush’s “Faith Based Initiative.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against giving. I am not against generosity. And I am not against virtue. It’s just that there’s something inherently in poor taste about a politician espousing the virtues of “giving” in a society riven by a deep chasm of class and race inequality. It’s not just the normal bad taste of a millionaire’s self-satisfied self-praise for sharing the crumbs off his table linens with those who are desperate enough to clean them up. In the case of the politician, it’s much worse.
Clinton explains why in his frequent repetition (most recently on Larry King Live) that he was able to do far more good as President of the United States than he will ever be able to do as a private citizen. When a man of Bill Clinton’s stature sells a book promoting “giving,” he ought to be required to dedicate half the book to making the following argument: If you believe in the spiritual, ethical, and practical necessity of giving, then the most meaningful way to promote that agenda is to be generous in your politics. If you want to be giving, be giving by demanding an aggressively progressive tax code.
Clinton says it himself all the time: The government can do far more than a private citizen in providing meaningful remedies for the ills that plague society. Thus, if we want to be “giving,” we should elect politicians who will pass laws requiring the incredibly wealthy to surrender more of their excessive wealth to the government. In a democracy, after all, the character of our government is a reflection of the character of the people. It is nothing but bald hypocrisy to praise “giving” but to vote for hoarding. Giving is best done silently in the voting booth, not loudly in front of a microphone. This is the theme, I think, Clinton’s book ought to explore.
When we vote to tax the concentrated accumulation of wealth by the top 10% of Americans, we ensure that the money goes where the people recognize a need worth giving to in a way that is backed up by the entire resources of the U.S. government. The government can do more with that money than Clinton’s Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) will ever be able to do. And this way, the wealthy won’t get to pose what is just another self-promoting tax break as an act of virtue it never really was.
Indeed, it’s not really “giving” if the wealthy are able to recoup in tax breaks the money they donated to an NGO. For most of America, however, the percentage of charitable donations a family can afford to make out of their income does not surpass the tax code’s standard deduction. There is no tax break for the poor who give. Thus, by promoting “giving,” Clinton may well be perpetuating classist distributions of wealth in our society. How visionary!
Clearly, this is a case in which actions speak louder than words. In fact, Clinton’s actions as a private citizen speak pretty loudly. He’s doing a good job if he just doesn’t go around talking about it on every media outlet. By promoting the rather unoriginal idea of “giving,” Clinton is just legitimizing the use of family values rhetoric as a substitute for socially responsible government.
The “giving” that is in order in this society should be done by those who have so much, not those who have so little. The best way for that giving to occur is for those with excess wealth to “give” to the government by supporting and paying higher taxes. Those “donations” can then be spent as determined by a democratic political process. That’s generosity without an agenda.
It’s not right to indiscriminately broadcast the propagandistic morality of “giving” to a society in which so many suffer deprivation from discriminatory wealth distribution, racism, sexism, and ageism (I’m talking about our children). Again, it’s not that “giving” isn’t good, but that the poor and powerless don’t need to be instructed in “giving” by the rich and powerful who, in the ways that matter, don’t give at all.
It’s no coincidence, after all, that Clinton’s book tour coincides with his wife’s presidential campaign. Is it really “giving” when the preacher’s sermon is a veiled advertising pitch for the preacher’s snake oil? (No offense, Hillary) What better way is there to gain free campaign TV air time than a book tour? Will Hillary listen to Bill’s sermon when it comes time to give marginalized progressive candidates who had to pay for their air time equal access to televised debates? I think we know the answer to that one. Thus, what presents itself as “giving” is actually just plain taking and not giving at all.
If a person devotes a book to the benefits of “giving,” ought he not take the task seriously enough to do so with careful attention to the integrity of the platform from which he is writing? How can an author contribute anything of value about the virtue of “giving” when the entire exercise is compromised by the way it so blatantly serves his wife’s high stakes pursuit of political power? Do the struggling masses in our society really need lessons in giving from such a person?
In short, if the topic is giving, Bill, why don’t you just give us all a break?
HANK EDSON is an author, activist, and attorney based in San Francisco. His blog, “MP3-My Politics and Progressive Perspective can be found at: hankedson.squarespace.com.