08 October 2008

Noam Chomsky Comes Begging

I haven't commented on my mailbag lately, mainly because Senator Obama has drastically slowed down the pace of his begging letters. It's been several weeks since I last saw one. Maybe his people have enough money now, or maybe they realize that they're not getting any from me -- or maybe they can't afford to send out so many letters anymore.

Today, however, I got a letter from Noam Chomsky, the linguist and public intellectual. To some on the left, he's the ideal dissident, holding his own country to the same standard of conduct as every other and making no allowances for our alleged moral superiority. To others on the right he is the exemplar of the "blame America first" attitude, one who supposedly thinks that every bad thing that happens on Earth is this country's fault, but has never met a dictator he didn't tolerate.

Chomsky was writing to me on behalf of an organization called RESIST. The name is apparently an imperative or command rather than an acronym; "RESIST" stands for "Resist!" The writer was one of the founding members of the group forty years ago. As he explained, RESIST "provides critical funding to small left-wing groups around the country who are fighting for the progressive beliefs, values, and goals that I believe you share."

Its efforts have been modest. In those 40 years, RESIST has given away "more than $4 million to 4,578 dedicated groups who are doing this critical work." That doesn't amount to much per group, but this is "the cash that small progressive organizations need to survive.... RESIST steps in with the funds they need to pay the rent and phone bills, buy a computer, rent a bus to get people to a demonstration, train citizens to be activists -- even jump on an unexpected opportunity to head off an emergency."

Who gets the money? "Most of our grantees' names won't be familiar to you," Chomsky admits, but he lists a diverse group of beneficiaries that might raise questions among potential donors to RESIST. He mentions an Interfaith Alliance of Idaho that fights prejudice, an Oregon Toxics Alliance that blocked construction of two fossil fuel plants, a Worcester ex-prisoners group seeking easier access to loans, a Chelsea MA group that "protects immigrants from abuse by police, FBI and immigration officials," a South Dakota abortion-rights group, and a traveling "Iran/Afghanistan Memorial Installation" that "raises awareness of the human cost of war."

Some are bound to seem worthier than others, depending on who reads this. Some of you might want to help some of these groups but not others, but I assume that when you give to RESIST you can't choose who gets your money. Instead, Chomsky writes that "You can trust RESIST to distribute your gift carefully," while Katha Pollit, the feminist Nation magazine columnist, notes that "RESIST vets the groups so you don't have to."

Intending no offense to RESIST and its patrons, I have to say that the Internet age allows people to learn about and investigate small groups more easily than they could 40 years ago. People ought to vet needy activist groups themselves if they want to give effectively and on a principled basis. People with very specific concerns ought to be able to focus their money in those directions without seeing some of it go to places they'd disapprove of. In other words, it seems to me that RESIST serves an obsolete purpose, and shouldn't have to serve its apparent middleman function anymore. Since I would hate to think that Chomsky's friends simply like to handle other people's money, I'll content myself with offering them the polite advice to find something better to do with their time.

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