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Ungracious Generosity

9 March 2008

(or: How dirty can that fiver get?)

Today I saw George Bernard Shaw’s most famous satire, Major Babarba, performed by the The Shakespeare Company. It was an amazing performance, and I highly urge anyone in the DC area with a mind for theatre to attend. (They have great student rates, as well)

I found Major Barbara (synopsis here) a powerful commentary of conflict between idealism, realism, and cynicism. It is fascinating how well Shaw can preach for the capitalist, for the arms dealer when he himself was a socialist and an ardent pacifist.

Barbara Undershaft is a naïve and idealistic major in the Salvation Army who sees her conviction that the “Army cannot be bought” shot down when the cash-strapped Army accepts a large check from her father, a wealth arms manufacturer.

(Act III) BARBARA. …I was happy in the Salvation Army for a moment. I escaped from the world into a paradise of enthusiasm and prayer and soul saving; but the moment our money ran short, it all came back to Bodger*: it was he who saved our people: he, and the Prince of Darkness, my papa. Undershaft and Bodger: their hands stretch everywhere: when we feed a starving fellow creature, it is with their bread, because there is no other bread; when we tend the sick, it is in the hospitals they endow; if we turn from the churches they build, we must kneel on the stones of the streets they pave. As long as that lasts, there is no getting away from them. Turning our backs on Bodger and Undershaft is turning our backs on life.
*a distiller of Whisky who bought himself a Lordship by funding the building of a cathedral.

Barbara is sickened at the prospect of rich men buying their Salvation. The money is tainted with the blood of those killed by Undershaft weaponry. But that raises the question: is the salvation of those fed by Undershaft bread, is the health of those healed in Bodger hospitals, tainted because of the origins of the funding?

The cynicism of funding origin still exits today. The movie The Constant Gardner creates a downright paranoia towards “generous” pharmaceuticals . But the world needs it’s philanthropists, whether they give out of genuine charity or the desire for a good name or a good night’s sleep. It is funding on a scale the government won’t, and the public can’t, provide. It is money for good works, and indeed to be put to work for the “commercial ruin” of people like Undershaft and Bodger. Though, in this day and age, being seen as a philanthropic company, or a green company, is very much in vogue. It is advertisement and an instant reputation boost. There are many self-interested reasons why a company might want to invest in a causes that might seem to work against them. People might view them as less harmful, less “evil” or soulless, better than their competitors. The consumers might feel that if they support this company, they are supporting a certain cause.

But hen does money become too dirty that even good works cannot launder it? Is it when that money has created wars? Formed addictions? Sold people? Been obtained illegally? Where would you draw the line?

As an aside, it seems to me that some people donate money from a sheer lack of knowing what else to do with it. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation comes to mind. There is only so much money a person can use. What is £5,000 to a millionaire like Andrew Undershaft?

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