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 June 8, 2016, 2:31 pm

The Leftist Line

The French left self-destructs

Publisher's Note May 4, 2016, 12:33 pm

The Clinton Cartel

Journalists are doing the Clintons’ dirty work for them and their machine.

Publisher's Note April 8, 2016, 2:07 pm

The Antiglobalists

“Both Sanders and Trump affirm their determination to rebuild an America weakened by unhealthy relationships with the outside world.”

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:

36,000

A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today