Why has philanthropy long been a favourite target of satirists, and what can this tell us about giving today?
We may well be living in a golden age of criticising philanthropy. Barely a week goes by these days without a new book taking aim at elite giving or a story about a big donor in the mainstream media that leads to widespread critical analysis of the role and legitimacy of philanthropy. And few would argue that greater scrutiny of philanthropy is a bad thing, given its growing prominence in our society (although we also need to be alive to the risk that justifiable critique tips over into cynical polemic, which is definitely the case sometimes).
One element , however, that seems to be somewhat lacking in the new wave of critical debate over philanthropy is humour. In particular satirical humour. I’m not talking here about broad brush jokes that just happen to take particular big donors as their target, but rather, as the OED states in its definition of “satire”, “works of art which use humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, especially as a form of social or political commentary”. One of the defining characteristics of satire (or at least good satire) understood in this sense is that it requires a pretty detailed knowledge of the thing being satirised, as you need to be able to pick out sufficient detail to make your satirical representation believable whilst exaggerating or distorting those elements you want to bring to people’s attention. (Just think of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It for politics; W1A for the BBC, or Silicon Valley for the tech industry – each of which enjoys a following among insiders as much as outsiders because they are seen to be so accurate). This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need to be particularly sympathetic or nice to the object of your satire (and plenty of satire is extremely pointed), but it does mean that you need to be able to take an insider perspective to at least some degree.
Maybe this is one reason there doesn’t seem to be much satire of philanthropy right now: are there simply not enough people who can combine insider knowledge with the outsider perspective needed to launch a satirical attack?(I will make an honourable exception here for the Shit Nonprofits Say Twitter feed, which is consistently hilarious and clearly written by someone with a deep insider’s knowledge of the nonprofit sector. I also suspect that if Succession ever decided to take on philanthropy as a topic, the results would probably be devastating and brilliant given how well it satirises other aspects of wealth…)
So is this lack of people able to bridge the insider/outsider gap, a reflection of the fact that philanthropy, like so many other topics these days, is increasingly both polarised and polarising? In discussions it often seems as though we are now required to declare our allegiance — either to a camp of philanthro-critics whose role it is to convince everyone that philanthropy is an anti-democratic exercise of power that usually does more harm than good, or to a camp of philanthro-defenders whose role is to decry any critique of philanthropy as an unjustifiable attack on the good will of people freely choosing to give away their money for public benefit. Unfortunately this leaves little space for those who might otherwise engage with philanthropy enough to believe in its merits, whilst feeling frustrated enough at its failings to want to highlight them so that it can be improved; and people who fall in this camp are probably going to be the best source of good satire (and the most appreciative audience for it, too).
It hasn’t always been this way, though. If we look back at the history of philanthropy, there is a rich seam of satire playing a role in pricking pomposity, exposing hypocrisy and holding those who claim to make the world a better place through their generosity up to greater scrutiny. Exploring this history is important and enlightening. Not only can it highlight the issues and features of philanthropy that satirists through the ages thought worth mocking, and thus focus our attention on the most important themes; it can also give us some sense of the renewed role satire could play today in holding philanthropy to account and thereby making it better. So let’s take a look at some of that history.
At the most fundamental level, satire has been used to cast doubt on the very notion of philanthropy. Anglo-Dutch political theorist and social philosopher Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 book The Fable of the Bees for instance, caused a major buzz (pun absolutely 100% intended) with its argument that self-interest and competition were better for the overall health of the nation than altruism and co-operation. The opening to the book was based on an earlier satirical poem entitled The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, which Mandeville had published anonymously in 1705. This poem (which I’m fairly sure no-one would describe as a literary masterpiece) tells the story of a community of bees that decides to abandon the desire for personal gain and live in Utopian harmony, leading to the eventual economic collapse of the hive. In a codicil to the poem, titled “The Moral”, in which Mandeville rams home his point just in case we haven’t got it yet, he argues that:
“So vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by justice loopt and bound,
As necessary to the State,
As hunger is to make ’em eat”.
Mandeville also went on to link his arguments even more directly to charities in later editions of the book, in which an additional essay on charity schools was included.
More common as a starting point than mocking everyone who engages in philanthropy, however, is to mock those who don’t – so the miserly have long been a prime target for satirists. Most famous of all, perhaps, is the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, whose response when approached by charity collectors about donating to a Christmas fund “to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth” is to ask “Are there no prisons?… And the Union workhouses- are they still in operation?” Scrooge then has these words thrown back at him by the Ghost of Christmas Present and eventually, of course, sees the error of his ways- including his dismissal of the duty to be charitable.
A 1901 cartoon from the satirical magazine Puck entitled “The Crabbed Millionaire’s Puzzle”, meanwhile, dispenses with the ghostly visitations but makes a similar point about the dangers of miserliness. An elderly and glum-faced Scrooge-like figure sits atop a huge pile of money, surrounded by a crowd of people clearly holding out their hands and asking for donations. The caption reads “If I had begun earlier I might have had some fun in giving it away. Now I must leave it either to relatives whom I hate or to churches and colleges in which I have no interest.” (NB: we will hear more about Puck shortly, as it is a key source for satire of philanthropy and a big favourite of mine).
More recently, the 1972 Monty Python sketch “The Merchant Banker” had John Cleese as a caricature of a rapacious capitalist banker, who when asked by Michael Palin’s timid charity collector to give a pound at first assumes it is a tax dodge and when told that it isn’t is unable to understand what is being asked of him:
BANKER: Well, I’m awfully sorry I don’t understand. Can you just explain exactly what you want?
MR FORD: Well, I want you to give me a pound, and then I go away and give it to the orphans.
MR FORD: Well, that’s it.
BANKER: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.
MR FORD: Well, yes you are.
BANKER: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?
MR FORD: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.
BANKER: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?
The marvelously cynical payoff to the sketch is the banker deciding that charitable fundraising sounds like a great new way to get money out of people for nothing, and dispatching the collector Mr Ford through a trapdoor in his office floor.
In each of these examples the characters we are presented with are clearly exaggerated. However, whilst we can find humour in their lack of charity and their justifications for being miserly, there is perhaps also an element of discomfort; as we are reminded of the times that we ourselves have been too caught up in our own affairs to think about helping others, or when we have let cynicism about human nature creep in and become an excuse not to give.
Of course, it is not just those who don’t give that attract the attention of satirists. Those who engage in philanthropy, but are suspected of doing so for the wrong reasons, are often held up for ridicule too. Often the “wrong reason” in question is an obvious desire for the social status or symbolic power that comes with noticeable acts of generosity.
In the late C19th, for more than 50 years, a satirical magazine called “Porcupine” kept the middle and upper classes of Liverpool on their toes through constant scrutiny and occasional sharp satirical attack. It was edited by the indefatigable Hugh Shimmin, who was himself a tireless social campaigner and charity reformer, and Shimmin’s excoriating editorials and sketches often focused on the perceived failings of the great and the good of Liverpool when it came to philanthropy. As Margaret Simey gives a compelling picture of Shimmin as a satirist in her seminal book Charity Rediscovered: A Study of Philanthropic Effort in 19th Century Liverpool:
“Indeed, it was one of his greatest charms for the climbing middle classes that he “had a provokingly quick eye for the faults of his own party, and a puckish delight in placing these in odious and ridiculous light” which frequently resulted in the public embarrassment of leading men. But the satire and the rough wit were inspired by a passionate conviction that the improvement of the condition of the poor was a public responsibility which it was his purpose to shock the better-off into accepting. This by vigorous and provocative exhortation, by rude indifference to the feelings of individuals, by remorseless attack upon bodies public and private, he succeeded in doing to a remarkable extent, as much by his infinite care in collecting his facts as by his recklessness in delivering the subsequent blow.”
In one particular 1861 editorial, Shimmin took aim at what he perceived to be the shallowness and social climbing nature of much of the charity in his city, declaring that philanthropy had become “the most fashionable amusement of the present age” and that “Liverpool, which delights in following a fashion of any kind, pants and puffs to keep well up with this in especial.” He also took issue with the hypocrisy and paternalism of those who would engage with the poor and the working class as subjects of their philanthropic pity but would never deign to see them as humans and equals; arguing that he knew “of a Liverpool philanthropist who will lecture night after night to workingmen, and will grasp their hands all around, and who would nevertheless sooner perish than offer his precious fingers to the governess when he visits a friend’s family.”
The accusation that their giving is sometimes driven more by self regard and ego than by altruism or genuine concern is one that has been levelled at even the most famous of philanthropists. The satirical magazine Puck (which we already mentioned in passing) started life in 1871 as a German publication created by the Austrian cartoonist Joseph Keppler, but in 1877 it launched an English-language version in the US and went on to become the scourge of many politicians and industrial magnates of the early C20th Gilded Age. It often took aim at the philanthropy of well-known figures like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, from a variety of angles. In one 1903 cartoon entitled “A Word to Grand Stand Specialists” by Samuel Ehrhardt, for instance, Carnegie and Rockefeller are pictured piling bags of money at the base of a statue labelled “fame”, in front of a backdrop of libraries and universities, while the eponymous character of Puck tries to direct their attention towards a home for consumptives and says to them “You have qualified thoroughly as modern philanthropists, now why not do some good?”
In a 1908 short story entitled “The Angel and the Author”, the writer and humorist Jerome K Jerome (best known for his novel Three Men in a Boat) tells the tale of a wealthy, self-absorbed man who has a dream that he met an angel whose job it is to go around and record everyone’s good deeds — so that they can be taken into account when they arrive at the Pearly Gates and are assessed for entry into Heaven. The Author is at first delighted, as he blithely assumes that he will be assessed favourably, although we quickly get the idea that many of his so-called “charitable” acts are more for his own benefit than anyone else’s. He boasts to the Angel “Of course, you remember my performance at Talbot Champneys in “Our Boys” the week before last, in aid of the Fund for Poor Curates…I don’t know whether you saw the notice in the Morning Post…?” but then quickly goes on to admit that “between ourselves, I don’t think the charity got very much. Expenses, when you come to add refreshments and one thing and another, mount up. But I rather fancy they liked my Talbot Champneys…” The Author is then confused to find that the Angel has recorded all of his deeds, but that they have not gone in the positive column as he had assumed. As it becomes apparent that this is not a mistake, but deliberate, the Author becomes increasingly indignant- eventually he talks his dream over with a curate who suggests to him that maybe there is a lesson about putting the needs of the receiver at the heart of our approach to charity, or even looking beyond charity to a wider ambition of seeking justice for all.
In more recent pop culture we have other examples of satirising self-regarding approaches to giving. Anyone who grew up in the 1990s in the UK, for example, is likely to remember the characters of Mike Smash and Dave Nice AKA Smashie and Nicey- spoof radio DJs created by the comedians Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield. A recurring theme of Smashie and Nicey sketches was a desire to promote their own fundraising activities, usually accompanied by the catchphrase “It’s for char-i-dee, mate”. (It should be noted that these sketches have taken on a somewhat darker hue in hindsight, since a clear target was the now-deceased Radio One DJ Jimmy Savile. He was well-known for his fundraising work but has subsequently become far more notorious as a prolific sexual abuser, and his charitable activities clearly played a part in the carefully-cultured veneer of respectability he managed to maintain during his lifetime. So the satire still perhaps works, but in a much grimmer way than originally intended).
Another brilliant modern example of satirising ego-driven philanthropy can be found in an episode from season 6 of Larry David’s TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm entitled “The Anonymous Donor”. In it, Larry decides to donate to a new wing of a museum andis very pleased with himself until at the unveiling of a plaque commemorating his gift he sees that it is adjacent to another plaque reading “donated by anonymous”. It quickly becomes apparent that the “anonymous” in question is in fact Larry’s friend, the actor Ted Danson, and that everyone knows this. As a result, Ted receives the congratulations of all the attendees at the unveiling ceremony for his apparent humility as well as his generosity, whilst Larry’s gift is clearly interpreted as a gauche attempt to buy social status through philanthropy. It is an extremely clever inversion of the standard dynamic often seen in satirical takes on this theme; as somehow Larry finds himself a pariah despite overcoming his natural reluctance to engage in overt public displays of philanthropy, whilst Danson has clearly played the game in its modern form more cleverly and gets the halo effect of giving whilst avoiding the accusation of self-aggrandizement.
Although we can laugh at these various examples mocking the vainglorious efforts of big givers to use their donations to gain social status, there may once again be a slight edge of discomfort for many of us — if we suspect that we have also been guilty of some of the same failings. Whilst it is not open to most of us to give big enough to have a new museum or hospital wing named after us, in a smaller way do we still sometimes use our giving and generosity to burnish our own self-image and the image we present to others? This has always been the case to some extent, but the advent of social media — with its demands to present an unrealistic, idealised version of ourselves that is beautiful and happy at all times — seems to have amplified the temptation for all of us to use charity in this way. (I thoroughly recommend checking out Jon Dean’s book The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good for a really interesting and entertaining look at this topic in more depth).
Even when philanthropists are motivated by the “right” things, the way in which they go about their business can still rub people up the wrong way. Hence there is a rich seam of satire that pokes fun at various forms of “do-gooder”, whose methods leave those who encounter their generosity feeling less than well-disposed. W. S. Gilbert (Of “…and Sullivan” fame) captured this beautifully in a verse from his Songs of a Savoyard entitled “The Disagreeable Man”, which paints a vivid picture of a priggish do-gooder whose motives are not in question but whose approach alienates all around him:
Charles Dickens also took aim at busybody do-gooders. Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House is depicted as a philanthropist, but one who takes a particularly patronising and proselytising approach in her interactions with the poor. She represents an archetype of the fashion for “home visitation”, which Dickens’s audience would have been very familiar with, which involved women from the middle classes going into the houses of poor families and subjecting them to a mixture of charitable support and moralistic browbeating.
Over-moralising to the point of Puritanism and thereby undermining your own charitable efforts is another trope that satirists have sometimes picked up on. A 1914 Puck Cartoon, for instance, poked fun at the church for taking such a strong line on the immorality of dancing that it cancelled fundraising balls. The image sees a mother and her children dressed in rags in a snowstorm, staring at a bill poster for a charity ball to raise money for the needy, which has been plastered over by a notice reading “CALLED OFF- On account of the Church’s Stand on Modern Dances”. The cartoon’s caption then provides the piece de resistance, reading “Faith, Hope and Charity. But the Greatest of these is Tango.”
In addition to moral puritanism, ideological absolutism is also something that has drawn a sharp satirical response. In his 1851 essay “Whole Hogs”, for instance, Charles Dickens mocks those social reformers and philanthropic campaigners who refuse to compromise at all in the pursuit of their goals, writing:
“It has been discovered that mankind at large can only be regenerated by a Tee-total society, or by a Peace Society, or by always dining on Vegetables. It is to be particularly remarked that either of these certain means of regeneration is utterly defeated, is so much as a hair’s-breadth of the tip of either ear of that particular Pig be left out of the bargain.”
Satirists have also drawn attention to examples where they perceive that the single-minded focus of reformers has led them to lose sight of the wider context around them. An 1881 Puck magazine cartoon entitled “The Gentler Sex- Charity for the Drunken Brother, Contempt for the Unfortunate Sister”, for example, depicts a group of female temperance campaigners supporting a drunken man in the street while they talk to him about their abstinence pledge. Meanwhile behind them a young mother holding a baby is being thrown out of a women’s home on to the street.
The lesson for all of us here would seem to be that even when we are fighting the good fight and trying to place ourselves on the side of justice, we need to ensure that we still treat those around us with decency and humanity. Merely being morally right is not, we should remember, necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card for treating people badly or being an asshole.
One notable criticism of philanthropy throughout history has been that too often it brings with it a preference for grand schemes and utopian visions. Sometimes it is argued that these schemes themselves directly lead to harm, if those who design them become so caught up in their plans that they lose sight of their real-world impacts. The most famous satirical take on this idea is probably Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (full title “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick”). In this pamphlet, Swift argues that the solution to the problem of child poverty is to encourage a form of ‘philanthropic cannibalism’ in which parents eat children they are unable to care for. Clearly this is horrifying in itself, but what is more horrifying is how rational Swift manages to make seem as a solution to the problem- and in doing so he provides a highly effective satire of the kinds of utopian solutions and philanthropic schemes that were rife in the 18th century.
More commonly, the thrust of satirical attacks on “grand vision” philanthropy has been that whilst they might not necessarily be harmful in themselves, they do harm by distracting attention from more prosaic and immediate needs. The 1843 Punch magazine illustration “Substance and Shadow”, for instance, (which has the notable claim to fame of being the first satirical illustration to be known as a “cartoon”, as explained in this History Today article) shows a gallery in which clearly hungry and ragged children are wandering around trying to get the attention of well-dressed adults, who are too engrossed in looking at the exhibition to notice them. The scene is meant to depict a national exhibition which the Government of the day organised, and which drew Punch’s ire on the grounds that such expenditure was grotesque when levels of child poverty were so stark. An accompanying satirical editorial witheringly pretended to commend the government’s decision:
“We conceive that Ministers have adopted the very best means to silence this unwarrantable outcry. They have considerately determined that as they cannot afford to give hungry nakedness the substance which it covets, at least it shall have the shadow… The poor ask for bread, and the philanthropy of the State accords — an exhibition.”
In his 1848 cartoon “The Universal Philanthropist”, the famed cartoonist George Cruikshank took more direct aim at individual philanthropists who let their grand schemes for social reform get in the way of more basic human charity. The cartoon shows a well dressed gentleman aiming a kick at a poor family who cower to get out of his way. The father of the poor family is saying “Please Sir, bestow your charity for we are starving!”, to which the philanthropist angrily responds “Interrupting me…at a moment when I am perfecting a grand benevolent plan f Universal Brotherhood and Community of Goods, for the amelioration of the whole Human Race! Why you ungrateful wretch, get out of my house and learn to love your benefactors!”
In an 1861 editorial, meanwhile, the Liverpool Porcupine aimed its criticism at the contemporary fad for social sciences; arguing that this merely represented an easier option than getting to grips with the difficult realities of addressing genuine social issues:
“Take up Social Science as nineteen-twentieths of our Liverpool folk do, as something which makes a shop-keeper for a moment hail-fellow with a lord, and flatters an alderman into believing himself a philosopher… Are you a Liverpool trader? Bring your wife and daughters to the meetings and be sure you are seen shaking hands with Theodore Rathbone… Once the philanthropist had heavy work, loathsome tasks, public contempt; now he has light and pleasant labour, fashionable honours, the praises of Lords, the puffing of newspapers…”
The idea that grandiose philanthropy can sometimes be contrasted unfavourably with the need for more immediate human charity has often — like many other themes to do with giving — been particularly keenly-felt at Christmas, as two Puck cartoons neatly illustrate. In 1900’s “A Christmas Sermon”, the character of Puck stands on a stage in front of a crowd of many of the wealthiest and best-known donors of the day (including Andrew Carnegie, J. D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt), holding a plan for a “model tenement” and pointing the audience’s attention towards a picture showing the current state of slum housing. In 1901’s “A Christmas Reminder”, meanwhile, Carnegie alone is the focus of the satire. In this cartoon we see Carnegie sitting at a desk looking over plans for another Carnegie Library, whilst the figure of Puck stands at the open door pointing to an elderly couple standing out in a snowstorm. The caption, which is somewhat over-long, is nevertheless worth reading in full:
“Here is something for you generous millionaires to think about, when you are endowing schools, colleges and libraries. A chance to learn is good, but a chance to live is better. Your present plan gives more to those that already have much.
Suppose you try giving something to those that have less than nothing. Provide necessities for the poor rather than luxuries for the rich. It is better to give these many thousands a chance to live clean, decent, moral lives than to give a few hundred sons of well-to-do parents a college education. While these horrible conditions exist one model tenement will do more real good than a dozen colleges.
You mean well. Try to do as well as you mean.”
It is not hard to see the modern relevance of this. Many still raise concerns about whether too much philanthropy by the wealthy goes to elite cultural institutions or universities. Meanwhile debate rages about whether today’s new breed of tech philanthropists spend too much time focusing on the far future and the risks posed by highly unlikely but potentially humanity-threatening events (like the development of superhuman AI), and not enough time using their resources to address the major challenges facing people and communities around the world right now in light of the climate crisis and extreme levels of wealth inequality. One could easily imagine an updated version of Puck’s Christmas sermon in which he addresses a crown of Silicon Valley billionaires and urges them to divert some of the attention they are currently lavishing on developing commercial space flight onto helping the many people around the world living in abject poverty. Just to pick one example off the top of my head…
Related to the idea outlined above — that philanthropy’s grander perspective can sometimes lead it to lose sight of immediate needs — is the rich history of satirising so-called “telescopic” philanthropy. The argument here is that the universal nature of philanthropy often leads it to focus on addressing issues overseas, and that this comes at the expense of addressing challenges closer to home. An 1865 Punch cartoon entitled “Telescopic Philanthropy” famously captured this idea, depicting the figure of Britannia looking out to sea through a telescope while a group of poor urchins grab at her robes and ask “Please Madam, ain’t we black enough to be cared for?” As this clearly demonstrates, the critique of telescopic philanthropy was inextricably tied up with nationalism and xenophobia (and as such often uses racialised imagery and language that is deeply uncomfortable to modern eyes).
In 1798, for instance, British Statesman (and future shortest-ever tenure Prime Minister) George Canning, who was a nationalist and fervent opponent of Jacobinism and the ideals of the French Revolution, published a satirical poem entitled “New Morality” in which he lambasted what he saw as the vile threat of “French” (i.e. universalist) philanthropy. Canning wrote:
First, stern PHILANTHROPY :-not she, who dries
The orphan’s tears, and wipes the widow’s eyes;
Not she, who sainted Charity her guide,
Of British bounty pours the annual tide :
But French PHILANTHROPY ; — whose boundless mind
Glows with the general love of all mankind;
PHILANTHROPY, — — beneath whose baneful sway
Each patriot passion sinks, and dies away.
Taught in her school to imbibe thy mawkish strain,
CONDORCET, filtered through the dregs of PAINE,
Each pert adept disowns a Briton’s part,
And plucks the name of ENGLAND from his heart.
The poem was then later turned into a poster-sized illustration by celebrated caricaturist James Gillray.
Another noteworthy critic of telescopic philanthropy was Charles Dickens, who brought the issue to a wide audience through the character of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, whose zeal for supporting missionary work in Africa leads her to neglect her own family to the point where her children go hungry. The Times newspaper was also staunchly critical of telescopic philanthropy (as explored in detail by Hugh Cunningham in his book The Reputation of Philanthropy Since 1750). In 1840, for instance, the Times reprinted a poem from the satirical magazine John Bull entitled “Ode to Modern Philanthropy”, which mocked what it saw as the failure of anti-slavery campaigners to start their charity at home:
“Your thorough-bred philanthropists can glance
Their pitying eyes over Earth’s expanse,
Til sorrow all their bosoms discomposes
For their black brethren sold to whips and chains;
And not a single sympathy remain
For starving whites who die beneath their noses.”
Such criticisms were by no means confined either to the UK or to the 20th century: in 1905, for example, a Puck Magazine cartoon entitled “The Gospel According to Saint John” — which the eagle-eyed among you will have noted is also my avatar image — depicted John Rockefeller (a committed Christian who gave large amounts to overseas missions) sitting atop a millstone, which is grinding what one assumes are white Americans to produce a large sack of money labelled “Foreign $ Missions” that Rockefeller is clasping as he hands a bible over to a caricatured African native. Whilst the overt racism on display is likely to strike most of us as abhorrent, perhaps even more uncomfortable is the feeling that we cannot pretend that as a society we have entirely put these kinds of attitudes behind us. As I write this, for instance, the UK’s national lifeboat charity (the RNLI) is the subject of a concerted hate campaign led by a far right group who are incensed that the charity continues to save the lives of “foreign migrants” who are crossing the English Channel in often highly perilous conditions in order to seek refuge or asylum in Britain. This sort of corrosive nationalism and bigotry is still often justified by misconstrued appeal to the same idea of “charity beginning at home” that underpinned critiques of telescopic philanthropy for so long.
The penultimate satirical theme I want to highlight, and perhaps the richest seam of all, is the idea that a lot of philanthropy is either deliberately or inadvertently hypocritical because their donor’s wider actions run contrary to their attempts to do good through giving. Sometimes this is simply about individual moral failings, as in a 1781 illustration by Thomas Rowlandson entitled “Charity Covereth a Multitude of Sins”, which shows a dandily-dressed Georgian gentleman knocking on the door of what appears to be a house of ill-repute with one hand, while giving some change to a beggar with the other.
More commonly, however, the satirical attack focuses on the way in which the philanthropist has made their money, and is thus tied into the wider critique of “tainted donations” i.e. the idea that some money is so ethically problematic or “bad” that it is impossible to do good through giving it away. This is a critique that continues to be the cause of sharp debate even today, but also has an extremely long history (which you can read a bit more about in this Twitter thread I made recently), including in satire. In an 1869 article in The Porcupine, for instance, Hugh Shimmin railed against “men who, outwardly great in charity and good works, are inwardly ravening wolves; who, robbing widows’ houses for six days, make long prayers on the seventh-staining the name of benevolence”.
The real heyday of satirising tainted donations, however, was almost certainly in the early 20th century US “gilded age”. The debate became a mainstream political and social issue thanks to controversy in 1905 over whether the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions should accept a large donation from J. D. Rockefeller in light of concerns about his business practices, and the satirists made hay. Mark Twain, for instance, wrote a letter to Harper’s Weekly in the guise of Satan (entitled “A Humane Word From Satan”) which began: “Dear Sir and Kinsman — Let us have done with this frivolous talk. The American Board accepts contributions from me every year: then why shouldn’t it from Mr. Rockefeller…?”
G.K. Chesterton, meanwhile, penned an article entitled “Gifts of the Millionaire” (Which you can find in full here), in which he poured wonderfully entertaining scorn on Rockefeller’s philanthropy, arguing that it was nothing more than the latest in a long line of attempts to buy absolution through giving:
“Philanthropy, as far as I can see, is rapidly becoming the recognisable mark of a wicked man. We have ofen sneered at the superstition and cowardice of the mediæval barons who thought that giving lands to the Church would wipe out the memory of their raids or robberies; but modern capitalists seem to have exactly the same notion; with this not unimportant addition, that in the case of the capitalists the memory of the robberies is really wiped out. This, after all, seems to be the chief difference between the monks who took land and gave pardons and the charity organisers who take money and give praise; the difference is that the monks wrote down in their books and chronicles, “Received three hundred acres from a bad baron”; whereas the modern experts and editors record the three hundred acres and call him a good Baron.”
Chesterton also mocked the idea that Rockefeller should be seen as generous at all, given the scale of his wealth — arguing that it would be impossible for him to spend or enjoy most of his money anyway, so it took no real sacrifice for him to give it away. As Chesterton puts it, “Rockefeller decides not to absorb the whole of his own wealth just as he decides, with the same generous self-abegnation, not to drink up the sea or use up all the heat of the sun.” (Which, even more than a hundred years later, remains a sick burn in anyones’ book).
Cartoonists, unsurprisingly, also loved tainted donations and the idea of philanthropic hypocrisy as a topic. An early Puck cartoon from 1881 entitled “The Two Philanthropists”, for instance, shows Jay Gould and William Vanderbilt (both well-known donors at the time) trussing up the figure of Uncle Sam using telegraph poles whilst proclaiming “Don’t worry Uncle Sam, we only want to make a bigger man of you!” to make a comment on the monopolistic practices both men adopted to make their fortunes.
A 1905 cartoon called “Puck’s inventions”, meanwhile, picked up on the aforementioned scandal over the tainted donation of J. D. Rockefeller to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and showed Rockefeller himself on a ladder, feeding coins into a giant machine labelled “Patent Disinfector” which then come out of a chute labelled “Purified Cash For Missions”. Another Puck cartoon from 1911 entitled “A phase of our tax system — the greater the service, the heavier the tax” depicts two charity workers addressing an oversized man sitting on a throne (presumably a slum landlord), who is taking taking money from a box labeled “Rents” with one hand and putting it into a basket labeled “Organized Charity” with the other, while in the background are run-down tenement buildings.
As philanthropy has become more prominent in recent years, it has become ever more important to put acts of generosity in context; including the context of where the donor’s wealth has come from and how they conduct themselves in other aspects of their life. The idea, once commonly held, that money can be made with the left hand and given with the right and the two somehow kept entirely distinct seems to enjoy far less support these days. As such, greater scrutiny of wealth and philanthropy is inevitable; and it is largely to be welcomed, as embracing greater transparency and accountability is a vital part of ensuring philanthropy’s legitimacy and license to operate.
Historically, as we have seen, satire has been a highly effective way of shining a light on the potential contradictions and hypocrisies of philanthropy. Often a well-aimed piece of satire can be more effective than a straightforward polemic because it is able to point us towards a conclusion side-on rather than head-on, and thus bring a greater number of people along for the ride.
And sometimes satire can even be put to work to highlight the flaws of critics of philanthropy, rather than the philanthropists: an 1897 Puck magazine cartoon entitled “The Popular Tendency to Rail at Wealth is Not Entirely Justified”, for instance, has at its centre a group of angry working class protestors complaining at the accumulation of wealth in a small number of hands, whilst around the edges are depicted various projects and institutions of public benefit supported by philanthropy.
This feels particularly relevant to the modern context, as whilst philanthropy would certainly benefit from more satirical scrutiny – so, equally, might some of its more doctrinaire critics. The point being that those who become too dogmatic either in attacking philanthropy or in defending it are probably in need of a good dose of having the piss taken out of them. Hopefully, therefore, as philanthropy once again becomes part of mainstream debate we will see an accompanying renaissance of philanthropy satire. I for one can’t wait.
Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.