Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Values.com looks devoid of ideology, but proposes a secular religion that accepts the status quo

While channel-surfing last night I stumbled on a TV commercial selling the idea that people should say ”please” and “thank you.” After the Miss Manners seminar, the ad sends the viewer to the Values.com website.

The values.com website is a hodgepodge of feel-good slogans and stories, sponsored by something called The Foundation for a Better Life (FBL). Here is how the Values.com website describes the foundation: “The Foundation for a Better Life began as a simple idea to promote positive values. We believe that people are basically good and just need a reminder. And that the values we live by are worth more when we pass them on.”

Besides the website, FBL pays for feel-good, values-based TV and radio spots, billboards, podcasts and a message board for inspirational stories and quotes. The website never mentions who funds FBL, but to its good, at least it states explicitly that FBL neither accepts contributions nor charges membership fees nor gives grants to other organizations. It claims not to have any religious or political affiliation. The only affiliation mentioned at the website is with The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAKF).

On to the RAKF website, which describes RAKF as “inspiring people to practice kindness and pass it on to others.” It’s another feel good website with stories and quotes about kind acts, ideas about how to make people kinder in the workplace, at home and elsewhere, a blog on kindness and links to “kindness resources,” which include other organizations and more anecdotes of people being kind to others. Although a 501(c) 3 organization, RAKF is privately held and funded; accepts no donations, grants or membership dues; and does not provide financial assistance to individuals or organizations.

Only by investigating on the Internet a little bit did I discover that both foundations are funded one hundred percent by Denver right-wing billionaire Phillip Anschutz, who Forbes describes as one of the richest people in America. Besides oil and real estate, Anschutz owns a number of professional sports teams.

On its surface, these two organizations and their websites are innocuous enough, spreading a non-ideological and homogenized love and goodness to the planet. A careful analysis, however, reveals that in fact these organizations lend subtle support to the current inequitable economic and social realities of the United States by distracting people from addressing real problems.

Let’s start our analysis by taking a look at the list of 88 values that Foundation for a Better Life lists at the Values.com website:

1. Achievement
2. Ambition
3. Appreciation
4. Believe
5. Believe In Yourself
6. Caring
7. Character
8. Charity
9. Class And Grace
10. Commitment
11. Common Ground
12. Compassion
13. Compliments
14. Compromise
15. Confidence
16. Courage
17. Courtesy
18. Dedication
19. Determination
20. Devotion
21. Do Your Part
22. Drive
23. Education
24. Encouragement
25. Equality
26. Excellence
27. Foresight
28. Forgiveness
29. Friendship
30. Generosity
31. Giving Back
32. Good Manners
33. Gratitude
34. Hard Work
35. Helping Others
36. Honesty
37. Honor
38. Hope
39. Humility
40. Including Others
41. Ingenuity
42. Innovation
43. Inspiration
44. Integrity
45. Justice
46. Kindness
47. Laughter
48. Leadership
49. Learning
50. Listening
51. Live Life
52. Live Your Dreams
53. Love
54. Loyalty
55. Making A Difference
56. Mentoring
57. Motivation
58. Opportunity
59. Optimism
60. Overcoming
61. Passion
62. Patience
63. Peace
64. Perseverance
65. Persistence
66. Practice
67. Preparation
68. Purpose
69. Reaching Out
70. Respect
71. Responsibility
72. Right Choices
73. Rising Above
74. Sacrifice
75. Sharing
76. Smile
77. Soul
78. Sportsmanship
79. Spread Your Wings
80. Stewardship
81. Strength
82. Teaching By Example
83. Team Work
84. True Beauty
85. Trust
86. Unity
87. Vision
88. Volunteering

It’s a strange hodgepodge of etiquette, Dale Carnegie-style positive thinking, ideas shared by all religions, ways to “play by the rules” and notions that tend to support the establishment no matter what it is. These are all general terms that most of us would agree should form the basis of decision-making. We should seek “excellence” and “justice,” and we should “do our parts” and make “right” choices.

But the fight to preserve these “values” is as bogus as the campaign to “support our soldiers” was during the early phases of the Iraqi War. Everyone supported our soldiers, even those opposed to the war. What action can an individual in our post-industrial society take that doesn’t support soldiers, except maybe not holding their jobs while they’re off fighting? What exactly did pasting a bumper sticker on your car do to support the soldiers? At its heart, “support the soldiers” was a shill and a code word for “support the war” and everyone knew it at the time.

In the case of these 88 values, the code is more subtle. These values can apply to anything. A dictatorship or state ruled by one party would be just as likely to list all these values as a representative democracy would. Virtually all these values (with the exception of “true beauty”) would come in handy in training an elite force to torture and engage in illegal assassinations. Many of these values would make a perfect substitute for “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means “work makes you free” in German and was hung as a sign over the entrance of several Nazi concentration camps. Those in favor of a woman’s reproductive rights are equally able to find solace in contemplating these values as those who wish to restrict these rights.

The amorphous quality of these values, and of the concept of kindness as well, make the campaign for “values” and “kindness” mere shills for maintaining the status quo, which as people are discovering is a fixed game in favor of those who already have money and power, a game which 95% of the population is currently losing badly.

By creating campaigns, the organizations take our minds off of our real problems such as addressing global warming and creating a more equitable society and economy. And why would Mr. Anschutz not want to get our minds off these problems, since dealing with them might upset the current status quo, which has generously rewarded Mr. Anschutz even as it has hurt the thousands of workers who serve the food or clean the floors in the venues where his many professional sports teams play.

From the standpoint of Mr. Anschutz then, isn’t it better if college students and adults are engaged in programs to support “values” and “kindness” than in organizing in favor of unions, a higher minimum wage or better environmental regulations? And doesn’t the spread of all these feel good stories make people feel better about their current circumstances?

The idea that we should all rally behind the need to “believe in yourself,” “volunteer” and “practice” unifies the country in an artificial way, like flag-waving does. But it’s a false unity that serves merely to support the way things are now because it’s not a real action that we’re united behind, such as the real action of boycotting the Komen Foundation. By replacing real-good action, these campaigns distract us from addressing real problems. By serving as a distraction, Anschutz’ organizations quietly support the economic and social status quo. Just as “support the troops” was code for “support the war.” So is the values and kindness campaigns really campaigns to support our current unfair system.