Philanthropic colonialism

Some good observations on modern charity, from Warren Buffett’s son.

Everyone ought to be just like us:

I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Even though we’re not just a part of the problem, we’re the source of the problem:

Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.

In a very fine essay, Samuel Wells points out that you can’t “give back” without having first taken what isn’t yours—and that the scale of most “giving back” doesn’t come close to matching what was originally taken.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

And how disturbing is it to think that this sort of charity may work to keep the giver in a privileged position?

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Or, even worse, serve as a means of expanding the market for our wicked way of life?

Microlending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

Please take 10 minutes to watch this excellent video, an interpretation of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.

It was posted on Monday, May 6, and has already been viewed nearly 3 million times. Foster’s point is a simple one, namely that it is possible to choose how we understand our circumstances, and the choices we make can dramatically affect our happiness. More important, education (properly understood) is critical to being able to make those choices.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has (almost) nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.

The video is not superfluous to Wallace’s message; rather, it drives his point home by illustrating his examples in a vivid, concrete fashion. You can read more about the making of the video here.

Ten good observations about self-publishing

This article identifies ten ways that the self-publishing trend has changed the world of books. All are good points, but this one hadn’t occurred to me:

8. It’s not all about making money. If, as I believe, self-publishing means taking personal responsibility for the management and production of your content, this can be achieved as effectively via a single copy to be kept at home as the sale of thousands online. Self-publishing means recognising, and preserving, content that has value for someone – but the process does not have to yield an income to be worthwhile.

I also liked this one, but for a different reason:

3. The copy editor, a traditionally marginalised figure, is now in strong demand. If you are well-connected through social media, can isolate what your writing has to offer and get the message noticed by a reading public, you can probably manage the marketing of your work. The one thing it’s really hard to do is self-edit. Long ago publishers outsourced copy editing, relying on the freelance labour market – and freelancers are now being actively sought by self-publishing authors too. The price for services for which there is both high demand and scarce supply tends to rise.

I definitely agree that it is difficult to self-edit, based on the evidence. I’ve read a fair amount of self-published work, some obscure and some bestselling, and the biggest shortcoming by far is in the editing. I am always willing and usually able to look past bad editing to get at the ideas or the story beyond, but my inner editor is continually dismayed at how much easier the writing would be to read if only some basic technical mistakes were corrected.

I may publicize this later, but for now I’ll bury the offer here: if you have something to say in writing but aren’t confident in your writing skills, I’m willing to help—tentatively. My time is limited, and I’m not interested in charging at this point, so I need to limit myself to projects that provide clear (if intangible) benefits to both me and the writer. If you have a substantial writing project you want to self-publish and think I can help you as an editor, please get in touch so we can discuss it.

The dust begins to settle

For a few years now I’ve closely followed the trend of self-publishing. Unlike most trends, this one seems to have landed exactly where I hoped it would—publishers have been circumvented, ordinary writers now have direct access to their readers, and life is markedly better for writers and readers (while much worse for the publishers). It’s still too soon to know whether this will lead to the death of Ortega’s “mass man”, but we can hope.

Although Hugh Howey is the latest writer to experience wild success with self-publishing—and therefore an outlier—he has done us all the favor of soliciting stories from writers who are experiencing moderate success, which he defines as $500-1000 a month. There are a lot of them, and Howey claims that he needs to redefine his earnings range upwards, i.e. a moderately successful writer who self-publishes can earn significantly more than $1000/month.

Good writing alert

I admire Jacques Barzun’s thinking, and have read many of his books. I admire his writing even more, and his Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers is the best book I’ve read on writing (and thinking!) clearly.

So it was a pleasure to stumble across this essay by Helen Hazen on how Jacques Barzun, while literary adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons, turned her into a writer by asking her to expand her one and only published essay into a book. What’s especially delightful is that Barzun did his job well—the essay is brimming with essential details on how to write, presented carefully and clearly, yet with all the warmth of a memoir, managing to bring Barzun to life as a writer, thinker, teacher, and friend.

Please, if you want to write and are struggling with the technical end of it, take the time to read this essay. It is quite encouraging, and you’ll likely learn a few helpful things.

Best. Obituary. Ever.

Really, take the time to read the whole thing:

Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. As a point of pride, he purported to remember every meal he had eaten in his 80 years of life.

The women in his life were numerous. He particularly fancied smart women. He loved his mom Wilma Hartzog (deceased), who with the help of her sisters and cousins in New Hebron reared Harry after his father Walter’s death when Harry was 12. He worshipped his older sister Lynn Stamps Garner (deceased), a character in her own right, and her daughter Lynda Lightsey of Hattiesburg. He married his main squeeze Ann Moore, a home economics teacher, almost 50 years ago, with whom they had two girls Amanda Lewis of Dallas, and Alison of Starkville. He taught them to fish, to select a quality hammer, to love nature, and to just be thankful. He took great pride in stocking their tool boxes. One of his regrets was not seeing his girl, Hillary Clinton, elected President.


It only took nine months since they were moved, but tonight I unboxed my office books. It was partly because I needed the space where the boxes sat, and partly because I had finally put up shelves to capture and organize the million little bits and pieces that otherwise end up on random flat surfaces.

There weren’t that many to unpack. Certainly no more than 200. When we moved last May I went through the thousands of books I had put into basement storage years back, and donated 95% of those to the local library. Then I went through my office bookshelves and culled more than half of those. I spared the living room shelves, which held (and currently hold) our farming and agrarian books. And I didn’t even think of touching the homeschool library upstairs. But of the books I deliberately weighed keeping, fewer than 200 made the cut.

I didn’t mention the culling at the time because the death-of-print fuss was at its height, and I didn’t want to irritate any friends who are devoted to their physical libraries. I think that has died down now, enough for me to reveal that I have no attachment at all to books as physical objects, and am happy to obtain my reading as I need it—and grateful it’s so easy to do that these days, using my Kindle or the Frankfort library or paying $4 for some bookseller to mail it to me.

It was interesting to be reminded of what made the 200-book cut:

  • Most of my books on writing
  • Books on folk and country music: history, biography
  • Books on the music business
  • A stack of books on simple living, research for a book I may still write
  • All 34 of my Jacques Ellul books
  • All 5 of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer books
  • 4 of my Christopher Lasch books (I hope the others are around somewhere)
  • A few computer books, mostly for nostalgia
  • A small selection of books that I think are profound

To these I added the ten or so books I’ve bought since we moved. I will still sometimes buy a physical book (used) if I can’t find a cheap/free ebook version or a copy at the library. But most of my reading these days is done on the Kindle.