top of page
  • Writer's pictureJon Dean

Charity, scandal and reputation laundering

There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob, imprisoned for framing his boss Krusty the Clown, is up for parole. Challenged by a lawyer that the tattoo on his chest reading ‘Die Bart, Die’ suggests he will kill Bart Simpson on his release, Bob replies calmly that no, the tattoo is German for ‘The Bart, The’. As the audience chuckle warmly one parole panel member turns to another and says, ‘No one who speaks German could be an evil man.’

US Senator Kelly Loeffler is hoping her electorate take a similar attitude to those who give to charity. In a new advert, part of a series costing $4m in air time, the Georgia Senator promotes three charitable actions she has taken over the last few weeks – donating her Senate pay to fight coronavirus, using her private plane to bring stranded Georgians home safely, and donating $1m to a Georgia hospital. The fact Loeffler has a million dollars to give away and a private plane to provide comes from her time as CEO of a digital financial services company, and her husband’s wealth as current Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, with an estimated family net worth of over $500m. A cynic however may be tempted to argue that Loeffler is only promoting her recent charitable work because she was in the news for incredibly negative reasons.

In March, Loeffler, both the youngest and richest member of the Senate, was accused of trading stocks based on private information briefings she received as a Senator. Her and her husband are accused of selling off stock worth several million dollars from companies likely to be impacted by coronavirus, at the same time as Loeffler and her Republican colleagues were downplaying the seriousness of the virus. As one of her electoral opponents Doug Collins put it: “There are a lot of people angry at a person who has possibly used non-public information to benefit themselves personally while telling Georgians it was all going to be OK.”

So Loeffler’s wealth, which originally gave her a campaign advantage, has become an electoral problem for her. What better way therefore to put that wealth to good political use therefore than to undertake some good old-fashioned, uncriticisable charity?

In my new book, The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good, I explore this phenomenon in order to to understand the social role that charity plays. Because ‘doing something for charity’ is (almost) always synonymous with ‘doing good’, charity acts as a good glow around charitable individuals. Given that we automatically assume ‘No one who does stuff for charity could be evil’, that symbolic power provides a morally dubious avenue for people to take advantage of their own charity, providing benefits often worth more in symbolic times than the material wealth they’ve given away.

This is not to besmirch all charity. The overwhelming majority of charitable acts are done out of love, care, and altruism – the amount of positive charity and kindness we’ve seen during the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated this. Even while as a society we tend to see ourselves as increasingly individualised and isolated, you can find heart-warming stories emerging every day of people looking out for each other and donating to those in need.

And we shouldn’t expect purity in those charitable acts. It is OK to feel the warm glow of doing something good for someone else – researchers have shown giving may provide a rush of dopamine similar to the effects of taking drugs or having sex, and such benefits may keep us coming back to altruism. What we find objectionable is the operationalisation of charity as a means to avoid a larger personal loss. An electoral defeat perhaps, or a tax bill – we know that the US tax code allows the wealthiest Americans to claim almost 40 per cent back against their donations, whereas the poorest cannot claim anything back, a situation that exacerbates inequalities, both in wealth but also the funding of certain welfare services, as the poor tend to give more to services that help the poor, and the rich to those that help the rich.

The book seeks to show how the fact that charity is symbolically powerful affects a range of different issues: how charities can use their status as an effective lobbying tool; how young people worry about fakery and showing off when fundraising on social media; how charities can avoid awkward questions because they are charities; and how certain charity symbols (such as the Remembrance Poppy) can be weaponised by wearers against non-wearers. All these things happen because acts of charity provide the actor with a protective halo. Kelly Loeffler and her team know this – the use of her wealth to help her constituents, which helps take attention away from a scandal and launder her reputation with her electorate is as cunning a deployment of charity’s good glow as one could hope to find.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

On Savile and charity

CW: child abuse, sexual assault, harassment Back in the mists of time (well, November 2019), I ended up with three hours to kill in the departures lounge of San Diego International Airport, as you do.


bottom of page