Save me from the super-rich and their competitive compassion


Save me from the super-rich and their competitive compassion


 


Nick Cohen
The Observer
24.09.06 


 


When Warren Buffett or Bill Gates hands over tens of billions of dollars to charitable foundations, Americans may be surprised at how rich the super-rich are, but not that


they give their fortunes away. It is commonplace to see plaques in museums, churches, hospitals, art galleries and universities thanking wealthy benefactors and equally ordinary to hear foreign leaders wondering aloud how they can inspire their rich to be less  miserly.


 


The generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon, who was born near the Chancellor’s constituency in Fife, fascinates Gordon Brown. Carnegie’ emigrated to America in 1848, became the richest man in the world and then handed his money to charitable trusts. ‘Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community: Carnegie declared.


 


You rarely hear British magnates sounding as magnanimous. Richard.’Branson has promised to invest £1.6bn of Virgin’s profits in renewable energy, but it is often wise with Branson to check the small print. Elsewhere, the rich hang on to their money and the rest of us don’t find their avarice unusual because we don’t have America’s peculiar puritan culture. In God Won’t Save America, his new book on why the dynamism and


hypocrisies of the founding fathers led to a society where ‘business is next to divinity’, George Walden writes that their emphasis on charity was America’s saving grace. ‘Implicit in the doctrine of r freedom to get rich was the understanding that rich folk have a duty to help the common weal: ”


 


I think Brown is naive to believe he cam import the US’s charitable culture like a container of machine tools being flown into Heathrow. But r may be wrong and on Tuesday, an organisation called the Fortune Forum will try to prove that I am by appealing to ‘individuals of extreme wealth’ to empty their bank accounts at a dinner in central London. Five hundred guests, paying £75,000 or more for a table, will hear Bill Clinton, Michael Douglas and ‘aristo-environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith appeal to them


to take ‘personal and individual action against global poverty and environmental degradation’. As they speak, ‘golden goddesses’, glamour pusses in glitzy dresses,’ will sway through thc audience collecting pledges for the British Red Cross, Water Aid and African Renaissance.


 


The event’s organiser, Renu Mehta, a model turned clothing entrepreneur, chirruped that she had once been a party girl, but then found by ‘talking to my friends, very fortuna(e individuals like me -captains of industry, celebrities, activists -that we were all feeling the


same way. We were looking for the missing ingredient in our lives, an ingredient that could offer personal fulfilment. I’ve since discovered this only comes with the serenity of giving something back’.


 


I have to confess toa prejudice here. Short of being locked up in the nonces’ wing of Brixton prison, I can’t think of a worse way to spend an evening than being stuck in the company of ‘aristoenvironmentalists’ and ageing actors as they try to find serenity in an orgy of competitive compassion.


 


Which isn’t to say that the Fortune Forum won’t do good. Conceivably, the ‘individuals of extreme wealth’ could raise tens or hundreds of millions for people who .need the money and it would feel perverse to criticise them if it wasn’t for the influence of religion on the new charitable movement. Not the ferocious moral earnestness of New England Protestantism, but the sloppy and occasion!llly sinister hodgepodge of new age mumpo jumbo which provides what passes for spirituality for so many of the modern wealthy.


 


One of the highlights of the evening will be a video address by Deepak Chopra, a fashionable Californian guru who has become very rich by condemning materialism. ‘He’s going to bring the ‘message that we need a culture of peace,’ one of the organisers explained to me. ‘A lot of poverty is caused by war.’ Indeed it is and among the causes of the poverty brought by war is religion. Which makes it strange that Chopra will speak on the need for his listeners to purge their minds of thoughts of violence and hatred and be


followed on the stage by Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.


 


The organisers boast that this will be Stevens’s first concert in 27 years. They forget to mention that when he converted to Islam, he upheld peace and tolerance by supporting the murder of Salman Rushdie. So notorious did his backing for Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa become that when Rushdie came out of hiding he reprised a Cat Stevens number


and sighed: ‘I’ve been followed by a moon shadow!


 


If you go to thewww.fortuneforum.org website, you will notice that none of the admirable charities it supports is dedicated to fighting poverty by spreading human tights, including the right of men and women to speak freely. The uncharitable could think that today’s aristoshave as little interest in the freedoms democracy brings as their predecessors.