Publisher's Note — May 15, 2014, 4:01 pm

Stick a Fork in Fund-raising Banquets

The false virtue of the fund-raiser

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on May 15, 2014.

As a frequenter of New York’s literary and journalism galas, I’ve become hardened to the realities of fund-raising: Good causes need money and there’s no such thing as a completely altruistic donation. Sometimes you have to swallow your distaste for the dinner chairman, the chief honoree, and the keynote speaker — either one or all of them — and keep your knife and fork aimed at the rubber chicken.

But during this banquet season just ending my tolerance of nonsense has been seriously challenged. It began in early November at the New York Public Library’s Library Lions dinner, where guests were greeted by protesters on the steps to the library’s main building, on 42nd Street, in Midtown Manhattan. The demonstrators were objecting to a “renovation” plan (which happily has since been scrapped) that would have involved transferring more than a million books to remote sites, selling the heavily used Mid-Manhattan branch across the street and moving its books into the beautiful old Central Library, whose stacks were to be replaced by a new “public space” designed by the awful modernist architect Norman Foster.

It sounded like planned shrinkage to me and my wife, not to mention unsavory real-estate shenanigans by library-board chairman Anthony Marx. But though we were tempted to go home, we didn’t want to offend our very nice table host and went through with the dinner.

Significantly, the principal honoree was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and not an author, who had made big donations to the library. But I wasn’t so troubled by that until one of the speakers made a condescending joke about the demonstrators outside. Coupled with Marx’s banal, unbookish speech, I was left with a bad feeling about the evening.

Next up, in late November, was the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Awards dinner, at which four worthy foreign journalists were honored along with Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and founder of the excellent ProPublica news organization. As it happens, I resigned from the board of CPJ in 2003 to protest the selection of that year’s dinner chairman, Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal, because I thought the scandal surrounding the company’s dishonest hyping of new stock issues underwritten by Merrill might bring discredit to CPJ. Nevertheless, I wasn’t too pure to buy a ticket and attend the soiree, and I haven’t missed one since.

This year, however, it didn’t occur to me to read the line-up card before I started eating my salad. Suddenly I heard the booming voice of Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Bloomberg News and the dinner’s chairman, denouncing government censorship of reporters around the world.

“Wait a minute,” I said to my tablemates. Hadn’t Bloomberg L.P., owned by Literary Lion Michael Bloomberg, just “suspended” a reporter over his investigation of the financial relationship between China’s richest man and the country’s Communist Party leadership? Yes, whispered the woman to my right.

This was too much. So for the first time in my banqueting career, I got up and left.

However, the worst was yet to come. Last week, I attended the PEN Literary Gala, as I have for many years, both as a member of the writers group and as a campaigner for freedom of expression. I first worked with PEN in 1989 when I initiated and helped organize a reading and rally to defend Salman Rushdie against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. Rushdie, also a former president of PEN American Center, was the evening’s main honoree, so all seemed correct and normal.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention to the program, having spent the cocktail hour drinking and chattering with friends and acquaintances from my beleaguered world of publishing. (How’s business? Come on, you know it’s bad.) So, once again, I found myself dismayed — this time by the presentation of PEN’s new Digital Freedom Award.

The “digital publishing model” seems to me to be destroying publishing, as well as the careers of all but the top earners among publishers, authors, and journalists — the 1 percent, as it were, who can still afford to buy tickets to the PEN Gala. And yet here was Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, picking up a “freedom” award.

Needless to say, Costolo’s speech ran a lot longer than 140 characters, but what bothered me was not the length or the self-congratulation, but its weird aftermath. When the time came to honor Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who has been jailed by Chinese authorities for running a website promoting rights for his ethnic group, the dinner guests were asked to tweet their protests to the Chinese government. Instead of signing actual postcards with their full names, at least 100 intellectuals, out of 637 people present, vented their displeasure through a disembodied, manifestly anti-intellectual medium that impoverishes language and writing.

I was relieved when two liberated members of Pussy Riot made a surprise appearance on the dais. At least they still understand the value of putting their physical selves on the line.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note December 9, 2016, 1:53 pm

Trump and Consequences

“In a certain way, the Democrats lost to Trump not through stupidity but through cupidity.”

Publisher's Note November 17, 2016, 10:58 am

Mitterand’s Centenary

“Mitterand remains an emblematic figure for President François Hollande, who is trying to attach himself to his predecessor as he tanks in the polls.”

Publisher's Note October 7, 2016, 4:53 pm

Despair

A luncheon with the Republican establishment

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2017

A Window To The World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mourning in America

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monument Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Defectors

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the River

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

House Hunters Transnational

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Over the River·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Brian Frank
Article
A Window To The World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
Article
The Lords of Lambeau·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley

Months after Martin Luther King Jr. publicly called the U.S. the “world’s greatest purveyor of violence ‚” that he was killed:

2

Temporary, self-absorbed sadness makes people spend money extravagantly.

In Colombia, U.N. delegates sent to serve as impartial observers of the peace process aimed at ending the half-century-long war between the FARC and the Colombian government were chastised after they were filmed dancing and getting drunk with FARC fighters at a New Year’s Eve party.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today