Not long after moving west to the area around Albuquerque, New Mexico, I saw, to my surprise, that the city boasted at least two huge statues of Paul Bunyan. I was mystified. Why commemorate a legendary northwoods logger in a southwestern desert town? Adding to the mystery were the locations of the two towering monuments, one beside a Greek restaurant, the other beside another eatery featuring Vietnamese cuisine.
Were these tributes to the massive lumberjack’s presumably equally outsized appetite? Or were they just evidence of America’s insatiable — if somewhat generic — appetite for heroes, particularly big, strong, independent men whose approach to complex problems was to give ’em a whack with an axe?
You know, people like the “Indian-killer” President Andrew Jackson, and the “robber baron” millionaires — from the era when millions were worth today’s billions — Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. These heroes died with their wealth and fame intact and their less likable qualities — racist brutality, ruthless, unscrupulous business tactics, endless greed and personal cruelty — still publicly unknown.
For most Americans, the bad news tarnishing their historic icons has been buried, less by the sands of time than — particularly in the cases of Carnegie and Rockefeller — mountainous dunes of dollars distributed through name-branded charitable foundations.
Big charities give big fortunes a good name, obscuring how those fortunes were made and how obscenely big they are. This formula still works, even as the 24-hour news cycle has eaten away at the personal impunity gift-giving once gave to big givers like, say, Bill Gates.
In some ways, it is healthy when heroic figures are reduced to life size. Except when obsessive focus on a philanthropist’s alleged philandering diverts attention better paid to questions about his foundation’s investments and the interests they serve and the powers they give him and how he uses them.
Tim Schwab is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., whose investigation into the Gates Foundation, published in The Nation, was part of a 2019 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.