GIFT horses are rarely welcomed into the stable now without a full physical examination. As Sir David Cannadine explained in his documentary Tainted Money (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), institutions are increasingly cautious about accepting donations without full ethical clearance, and the bequests that they trousered long since are routinely reviewed for any hint of defilement.
Museums and universities have the biggest job on their hands, as the places with the most prestige and the least money, while under the most scrutiny are donors such as BP and the Sackler Trust for their involvement respectively in fossil fuels and painkillers.
Nevertheless, money can do wonderful and transformative things. Dr Beth Breeze, of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, thinks that the recipients should be more robust in their pushback, and the British Museum at least has done what the Royal Shakespeare Company failed to do, in defending its association with BP. But we are naturally suspicious of donors, preferring them to behave to type. As Wafic Saïd, named sponsor of the Oxford Business School, commented: had he spent his money on a splendid yacht, nobody would have batted an eyelid.
To be suspicious, even cynical, is human. But we heard also from those who hold a principled objection to big-bucks philanthropy. It is a deflection from the real issue of inequitable tax structures that, were they fixed, would squeeze more from these billionaires than their small change. One would need to adopt a wide-eyed and unhistorical view of government spending priorities to believe that any of that extra dough would find its way to arts and cultural organisations. John Studzinski, of the Genesis Foundation, here offered an alternative vision: of philanthropists’ operating in partnership with their beneficiaries, sharing ambitions and accountability.
Blame all this moral ambiguity on Foucault. He and his pesky post-modernist friends have taught us to mistrust our motives, history, and learning. The starting-point for Analysis: What the Foucault? (Radio 4, Monday of last week), presented by Shahidha Bari, was a speech by Liz Truss. She recalled an education whose fixation on institutional racism and sexism precluded effective teaching of basic literacy. Moral relativism and the current enthusiasm for decolonisation both stemmed directly from Foucault.
Not so, say the experts. And, while the academics helpfully explained how it was all much more complicated than that, the journalist Agnès Poirier provided a helpful cultural gloss. The fact is, we just don’t like polo-necked French intellectuals’ telling us how to think. This attitude is exemplified in a recent blog in which Dominic Cummings rails against Oxford English graduates who bore on at dinner parties about Jacques Lacan, the shocking thing in this statement being that anybody might invite Mr Cummings to a dinner party.