Culture

Mark Zuckerberg’s Self-Congratulatory Generosity

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (David Ramos/Getty)

Anyone who spends time on social media will have encountered one of those posts in which the writer uses a life cycle event to expound on how wonderful his family and, by extension, he is. The occasion of a spouse’s birthday, or of the birth of a child, triggers an outpouring of sentimental and bathetic pap meant to demonstrate the depth of feeling, the trueness of heart, the purity of intention, the nobility of status possessed by the writer: My wife is the most beautiful and charitable and perfect creature ever to alight this earth, my husband not only runs marathons but kills and guts dinner for us every night, little Joey just matriculated at Brown after spending eight months kayaking Burmese refugees to village health clinics. Whatever the actual virtues of the relatives in question — and I am sure there are plenty — the purpose of these missives is to let the reader know just how good things are going for the author, and to make the reader question his own life choices. They are a means of social self-congratulation.

Leave it to the architect of social media, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not only to compose the most cloying and sanctimonious public display of superiority I have yet to read, but to combine his self-regard with another obnoxious trait, the empty gesture of solidarity in a fashionable cause. The 2,200 word “letter to our daughter” Zuckerberg co-wrote with his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, in which the billionaire pledges to “give 99% of our Facebook shares — currently about $45 billion — during our lives to advance” the mission of increasing “human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation,” is the oligarchical equivalent of changing one’s profile picture to “Je Suis Charlie” or “Bring Back Our Girls” or adding a rainbow filter in honor of marriage equality. It’s a commitment to everything our cultural elite considers good and fuzzy and pure at the moment: public health, educational uplift, immigration, connectivity, diversity, and inclusion. But the actual details of that commitment are much more vague and obscure than the hosannas of praise would suggest.

RELATED: Why Are People So Riled Up About Zuckerberg’s New-Fangled Philanthropy?

The SEC filing that accompanied the epistle of Mark, for instance, reassures the government and investors that Zuckerberg “plans to sell or gift no more than $1 billion of Facebook stock each year for the next three years” while retaining “his majority position in our stock for the foreseeable future.” Stockholders ought not to panic, in other words; Zuckerberg hasn’t found Jesus or Buddha or Baphomet and become an ascetic monk, he isn’t about to give up his job and his fortune overnight and move to a mountaintop where he’ll spend his days and nights contemplating the Lotus flower. Even the vehicle by which Zuckerberg intends to make the rest of us more advanced and equal has been designed to give this master of the universe the maximum of flexibility and ambiguity: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will be structured not as a nonprofit but as an LLC, allowing it to invest in start-ups, make money as well as hand it out, and engage in “philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.” Only someone worth $45 billion could pass off a lobbying campaign — excuse me, “public advocacy” — as charity. And if Zuckerberg doesn’t follow through on his pledge, if he decides 3 or 10 or 20 years from now that Max (not to mention her potential siblings) needs more than $450 million in walking around money after he has departed for the big server farm in the sky, what happens then? It’s not like Zuckerberg will pay a price in reputation if he doesn’t follow through with the spirit of a Facebook post he wrote in 2015. He’ll be dead!

#share#I hasten to add that I wholeheartedly support billionaires giving their money to charitable causes, most definitely including small circulation political journals, and that I am second to no man in my envy of high net worth individuals. What I find ironic is that the very people heaping praise on Zuckerberg for his generosity — the media, eminent liberals, celebrities — are exactly those who regularly bemoan the concentration of wealth in our society, the oversized influence of the rich on our politics and public policy, the degradation of the environment (just how large is Facebook’s carbon footprint anyway?) and the collusion of government and multinational corporations in the harvesting of Big Data. One can’t help feeling suspicious, or cynical, or at the very least ill when one reaches the end of Zuckerberg’s letter and reads the affected comments from Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart, Arianna Huffington, Maria Shriver, Ashley Judd, Gavin Newsom, and, of course, Shakira. Typically, when such an assortment of right-thinkers and do-gooders and self-promoters and entitled bounders agree unanimously on something, I reach for my gun, which they are busy trying to take away. Is there anything more nauseating than the well appointed and superrich reminding themselves how wonderful they are?

Is there anything more nauseating than the well appointed and superrich reminding themselves how wonderful they are?

I seriously doubt we needed another example that the easiest way to win attention and applause is to spout the conventional wisdom as loudly as possible. Zuckerberg did this before in 2010, when he ostentatiously announced on Oprah a gift to the Newark school system of $100 million. That award, which happened to coincide with the negative publicity of The Social Network, has been deemed a terrible failure. Needless to say, the results of the Zuckerberg plan have received far less attention than his initial statement of intent and his identification with the celebrated cause of education reform. Something similar happened with Zuckerberg’s pressure group, FWD.us. Announced in spectacular fashion in 2013 to promote comprehensive immigration reform, lauded as righteous and cutting-edge, having $50 million at its disposal, FWD.us “stalled” in its efforts to increase the pool of cheap foreign labor available to the tech industry. With this record, I’m not sure I would want to be a recipient of Zuckerberg’s “charity.” But what does it matter to the cognoscenti — Zuck’s heart is in the right place.

Such an alignment of values is all that matters anymore. Contrast the reception of Zuckerberg’s announcement with that of David Koch’s gift of $100 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital for cancer research. The few skeptics of Zuckerberg are themselves the subject of denunciation in Business Insider, whereas union drones picketed a hospital for accepting Koch money. Mark Zuckerberg may be immensely rich and powerful, his record of activism may be spotty, his worldview may be trite and banal, his “giving” pledge may be more complex than it seems, but as long as he says “The future belongs to people like Ahmed,” he can do no wrong. Observers of Zuckerberg are faced with an Internet version of the chicken-and-the-egg problem: Which came first, the Facebook or the culture of over-sharing and social positioning and one-upmanship that accompanies it? In today’s world it’s not enough to be affluent and influential and privileged and solipsistic. Everyone else must know these things about you. And everyone else must praise you for it.

— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2015 All rights reserved

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