The Emperor’s New Clothes

You recall the story.  A vain emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying the finest clothes unknowingly hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid.”  The emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the emperor does the same.  Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the emperor marches in procession before his subjects.  The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession, unwilling to acknowledge the truth that everyone can see.

We’ve all experienced similar circumstances in our lives, where the plain truth is clouded by distorted words and intentions meant to distract us from reality.  For instance, political advertisements which have little regard for accuracy bash the truth every day during this current political season.  Corporations are famous for speaking in euphemisms which are meant to justify the unjustifiable.   Some attorneys make their careers on the basis of clever turns of phrase which are designed to deflect light and reality.

I don’t know why I expect anything different in the non-profit world, but I do.  I somehow became possessed of the notion that amidst all of the self-serving and self-interest in society at-large, the philanthropic community and its service providers might have carved out a niche wherein the desire to do some good would outweigh any other motivations, that here is where conscience would finally catch up with career.  But not really.

I received a marketing piece in the mail this week that caught my attention, not due to its intended message, but because the content so blatantly refuted reality.  The glossy, multi-page brochure was sent by a large, well-known firm which invests funds for foundations. The materials include a 10-page essay by the CEO of the company, whose fundamental message is that the growing income disparity in this country is not really conclusive and that, even if its is really that bad, hopefully the voices in pain won’t be loud enough to bring about any meaningful policy reform.   He goes on to hope that the voices “agitating for much of the change” will go away or prove to be “immaterial.”

The second item in this truth and enlightenment package is a slick, four-page analysis by the firm’s director of investment strategy.  His message is shorter, but no less obfuscating of the truth than that of his boss.  He cites five telltale signs that a bull investment market might be coming to an end and then, one by one, explains why no such evidence exists today.  Among those telltale signs, he cites the risk of monetary tightening, and explains away our current monetary reality with these words: “It may not feel like it, but the economy has been normalizing.”  I found this characterization of our economic status boldly self-contradictory.  If the economy is normalizing, I would expect that the one true litmus test would be that people are, in fact,  beginning to feel less discomfort, fewer threats to their economic well-being, less inequality.  That is not how the majority feels about their current, personal, economic standing.  A normalizing economy ought to bring relief.  But this executive brushes over the reality of what most people are experiencing and says it isn’t true, that things really are getting back to normal.

Both pieces are replete with the obligatory graphs, charts and statistics to back up their claims.  They describe the finery of the garments, the elegance of the fit and an implication that anyone who cannot see the wisdom in their words must be “unusually stupid,” in the words of the fable.  I find the materials even more evocative of the emperor story as I look at the photographs of these two leaders in their crossed-arms, regal poses of trustworthiness.

It is true that this firm (and its master tailors) is only a peripheral provider to the philanthropic community.  Perhaps it is overreaching for this reflection to condemn an entire industry on the basis of a representation of one firm, regardless of how large and influential it may be.  But if the philanthropic community truly cares about its works, its impacts and its reputations, then perhaps integrity warrants a closer examination of its bedfellows.  After all, we are known by the company(ies) we keep.

Saying something does not make it so.  Like the emperor, we may not want to recognize the truth of having been fooled.  But it’s better than fooling ourselves….

“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”                                                                                                                     –Macbeth


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