THE PGA & CHARITY
(4/14). Just a few days ago, while I was unlocking my bicycle outside the small supermarket that serves my neighborhood, a young man in his early 20’s, or thereabouts, stealthily hunkered up beside me and asked if I could spare some change. Although he was not hygienically challenged, he featured an unkempt Nordic red beard and a general level of dishevelment in harmony with his request, in spite of the not unhealthy vigor of this youthful stage of his life. As is often the case with these types of encounters, he was unctuously polite and fairly articulate. When I refused his request, he God blessed me and we both slid off into our lives. Interludes like this are not uncommon in today’s global economy, even in places where the ostentatious wealth of success can be seen from any vantage point. I defy anyone reading these words to deny ever having to deal with such a circumstance. I’d venture to say we all feel a similar kind of distaste for these situations, one that always leaves a slight hangover of antipathy, sorrow, and yes, guilt in its wake. This residue of queasiness is really an indictment to the idea of “charity” itself. Regardless of the money given and the visible fruits of such largesse, a society that overly relies on charity rather than social innovation is a society comfortable with a status quo that accepts poverty as a part of its DNA. Our largest, most organized, most corporate forms of charity, the ones almost all of us feel smugly self righteous in extending our disposable wealth to, are really no more than a way to deodorize the arm pit of my unappetizing brush with the young panhandler. In the essay “Caritas”, I explain why I am not impressed with the fine works of charity carried out by the Catholic Church in Spain, basing my negativity on the kind of socio-political reality The Church has always allied itself with, a reality that creates more poverty than any charitable mechanism can ever make a dent in. I recently began to see a similar situation with regard to the charitable work done by the Professional Golfer’s Association (the PGA) in the United States. Although I do not play golf, I like to watch it. There is something about the grace and elegance of a world class golf swing that appeals to me, in much the same way a good shortstop fielding a ground ball or a beautiful backhand does. Add to this the outdoor splendor of a meticulously manicured golf course, along with the sporting civility of the game’s personality --- I like to watch golf. All the great sporting industries, like all the behemoth corporate entities ruling our world, have charitable mechanisms meant to clean the latrine of their profit making conspiracies. This is the “good corporate neighbor” face they prefer to show to the world, the camouflage for the true reality of how they make their money. Although the PGA will be the target of this essay, what I’m about to say can be applied to the whole concept of “altruistic” corporate charity and how it affects or does not affect the society we live in. In watching my fair share of golf this year, it has become obvious that the PGA is emphasizing its charitable giving more than ever. Hardly a half hour goes by without some mention of this, perhaps because they claim to have gone over 2 billion dollars in such philanthropy, although they do not clarify the time frame such generosity accrued in. My only clue as to such was provided during last week’s telecast from a tournament in Houston, where the local sponsors claimed to have gone over the 2 million mark since such activities began in the 1970’s. Two billion, 2 million, hey, no matter how you look at it, these are large sums of money that can be used for worthwhile things, as I’m sure they are. But when it comes to solving the most engrained socio-economic problems of a huge, complex, competitive, sophisticated market driven beast like the one we live in, these seemingly impressive sums of charitable giving turn out to be almost negligible. Only an “official”, public, societal effort meant to create a Social Contract amongst all citizens, can even begin to tackle such problems. But Post Consumer Man, what’s wrong with the charitable add on provided by entities like the PGA? It can’t hurt, right? Superficially speaking, yes, that is correct. But if we really delve into the nuance and profundity of how our society works; if we begin to peel away the leaves of the artichoke and get to its “heart”, it becomes more difficult to defend the PGA and our “charitable” corporate masters in general. Golf is a sport that is very difficult to cultivate amongst the lower laminations of any market driven system. You can’t just walk down to the schoolyard and start shooting hoops. A golf course, even a cow pasture public facility, is perhaps the most expensive venue to maintain in all of sport. The people who play are the ones that have to pay for this. This eliminates a good swath of America’s population from participation. This exclusion becomes even more acute with regard to those we see playing on TV. The talent to reach such levels of play must be intensively nurtured and developed from an early age, something which is difficult to do without unlimited access to proper facilities. This is almost impossible to find in a public environment. Although there are exceptions to this, even in the world of pro golf, I’d be willing to bet that if we studied the economic backgrounds of the professional athletes from all our major sports, golfers, on average, would be at the top of the pile. (Ironically, Tiger Woods, perhaps the most famous golfer of all time, is just such an exception. I’d be curious to know how his father Earl managed his golfing upbringing). What we have established is that the center of the golfing demographic, from an economic standpoint, is above (maybe even well above) the general median of the populace. With regard to the PGA and those who run it, we are not talking about people above the median; we are talking about “old wealth”, “oligarchy”, “ruling class”, and other such bygone targets of “lumpen” unrest and revolutionary fervor. Perhaps the bluest blood we can find in America hangs out at the Butler Cabin in Augusta, Ga., home of the Masters Golf tournament, an iconic date on the sporting calendar and something that could be considered the most aristocratic event this country has ever offered to the world and itself. A number of the tournaments on the PGA calendar include “Pro-Am” addendums to the real competition. The amateur participants in these jolly “soirees”, once we get past the pop culture celebrities, are usually filled out by the titans of business and finance. The amateur cast in the Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, perhaps the most photogenic golf course in the world, is a who’s who of American CEO muscle. They are an impressive tribe --- content with themselves, pleasant, articulate, expensively understated in their dress with a regal bearing that seems to come naturally to them. The rest of us assimilate their “class” in an almost unconscious way. They blend in, they don’t offend, they make no waves. It is hard to resent these people, and that is how they want it. At Pebble Beach, even its resident cinema immortal, Clint Eastwood, is that rare conservative in the Hollywood landscape. “Charity” has always been a significant part of the identity of this segment of any western style culture. In spite of the growing inequalities in wealth generated by our current form of capitalism, we do not live in an environment of revolutionary unrest. There is still enough wealth spread about to keep a lid on that. I’m not advocating any extra-legal assault on the wealth of these people, even if it is an exaggerated wealth that overstates the contribution to society they make; even if much of it has been blundered into by the roulette wheel of the procreative lottery. The current wealth differentials in our society are both immoral and unhealthy for the organism in general, but some form of wealth differential is an innate part of even a just and successful capitalist society. But I’m tired of hearing about “charity”. Although the PGA is not a political organization, its place in our society puts the heart and soul of its outlook in the bull’s eye of conservatism. If we were to put a more vulgar label on this outlook, we could say they are overwhelmingly “Republican” in their affiliation. This means they support a governing mechanism intent on destroying the one concept that can truly tackle the immense challenges our society faces, that being the Social Contract safety net. In a sense, the more you brag about the size of your charitable giving, the more you are saying we have failed. The PGA can brag and boast of their charitable work until that last 3 footer is made in the history of the cosmos and I will still not be impressed. The social order they represent creates far more human degradation than its charitable work can come close to resolving. The task at hand is to come as close as we can to eradicating “charity” through a Social Contract mechanism we all share the burdens and rewards of. I consider those who trumpet their charitable work while opposing true social innovation to be part of the problem. “Charity” has always been a smokescreen, a rationalization, for privilege that is often held onto in an unsavory way. In the end, regardless of how you sanitize it, charity is a degrading thing, whether it be the PGA-Catholic Church-Corporate kind of charity, or the “can you spare some change” kind of charity.
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