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Green-washing, art-washing, sports-washing
Will the laundering ever stop?
June brings America's premier golf tournament. This year's United States Open has the added attraction of a juicy scandal. The golfing world, of which American golfers form a large part, is in a furor over the launch of a competitor to the PGA Tour, the venerable monopoly of American professional golf. The LIV Tour has enticed a score of top golfers—and an equal number of also rans —away from the PGA, which has retaliated by excommunicating the defectors. The PGA would have been upset in any case, but what gave this new rivalry media legs is that the LIV Tour is funded by the government of Saudi Arabia. Defenders of the PGA cry "sports-washing," declaring that the Saudi government is trying to purchase respectability it lost by its abuse of human rights.
Sports-washing has a long history. Roman emperors curried popular support by staging gladiatorial contests. Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a way of demonstrating German prowess and efficiency. The black American sprinter Jesse Owens took some air out of the Aryan sails, but the world was still impressed. China has hosted the Olympics twice in the last twenty years, diverting attention from the increasing repressiveness of its government.
Other forms of reputation laundering have equally deep roots. Art-washing wasn't called art-washing until recently, but Renaissance princes practiced it regularly. The means by which the Medici and their ilk acquired their fortunes didn't stand close scrutiny, but Cosimo and the rest deflected attention by sponsoring Leonardo, Michelangelo and other great artists.
The titans of America's Gilded Age did likewise, with J. P. Morgan being the most prominent art maven. Andrew Carnegie preferred endowing libraries, while John D. Rockefeller and Leland Stanford funded universities.
Green-washing turns the distractive impulse in an ecological direction. Big oil companies make a point of sponsoring environmental groups, especially after oil spills. Airlines plant trees in the Amazon to offset the carbon their jet planes are emitting.
No one takes the launderers' professions of disinterested philanthropy seriously. Of course they are trying to deflect or neutralize criticism. The interesting part of the debate occurs on the side of the recipients of the largesse. Is there a point at which money is too dirty to be laundered? Does acceptance make the college, the art museum, the professional golfer complicit in the misdeeds of the benefactor?
The golfers who jumped to the Saudi tour were asked precisely this question. Most tried to dodge, saying their move was merely a business decision, made with the welfare of their families in mind.
A comparable question was put to the directors of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had accepted large donations from the Sackler family, the principals in Perdue Pharma, after the company came under fire for its role in the epidemic of opioid deaths. The Met didn't give back previous donations, but in taking the Sackler name off a wing of the museum it conspicuously precluded acceptance of any future donations.
The Met's decision was proclaimed in moral terms but in fact reflected self-interest no less than the decisions by the oil companies and airlines. As institutions, they all had reputations to uphold. It was bad for the brand to be associated with shady people and practices.
Yet this dodges the ethical question. Was the public interest served by the Met’s rejecting Sackler money? Should the trustees of Duke University turn their endowment over to the heirs of people who died from the smoking that enriched James Duke? Would the world be better off today if Leonardo had spurned the money of Ludovico Sforza and left “The Last Supper” unpainted? Bill Gates made billions from Microsoft's de facto monopoly of office software; should people and institutions battling malaria reject the money Gates is devoting to their cause?
Are there any guidelines or rules of thumb?
Here are two. First, was the activity that generated the money criminal? Second, will the victims of the asserted malfeasance benefit if the money is refused or returned?
If the activity was legal, then the money ought to be accepted or kept. Otherwise, the recipients place themselves in the impossible position of having to pass moral judgment on everyone who wants to do them a good turn.
If the victims of criminal activity are alive and can be identified, then the money should be rejected or returned with a stipulation that it go to them. If not, the money should be kept. The Supreme Court in 1911 determined that John Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, but by now any competitors who were illegally run out of business are far beyond the realm of earthly compensation. The University of Chicago should keep its Rockefeller endowment and put it to good use.
This is the essential test: Is the money being put to good use? Money itself isn’t good or bad, only the use to which it is put. The worthy causes that receive money should focus on doing what makes them worthy. If reputations get laundered in the process, so be it. The world has enough dirty laundry without adding to the pile unnecessarily.