Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Dedicated to the Idea"

If you listen to public broadcasting long enough you'll hear:

...brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live a healthy and productive life.

I bet Bill and Melinda paid a pretty penny for that phrase. Maybe even two. Did they get good value?

Let's assume that the B&M Foundation is, truly, as claimed, dedicated. Dedicated to an idea that -- well, let's just take as given that this idea is good, and good for people, and set aside the specifics.

Sounds good, right? I mean, they're dedicated.


To an idea about something that's good for people.

So -- dedicated to something that's good for people?

No, not to the something. To the idea about the something.

Not even to the people?

Nope. The dedication is to the idea.

Chew on that for a moment and contrast this tagline with what is probably the most powerful opening to a position statement I've read this lifetime:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that...

Yes, that one.

...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

A bit stronger, eh?

What if Bill and Melinda had, instead of being all measly mouthed about this idea they're dedicated to, put it as directly and powerfully as that? Let's try it:

We hold as true and self-evident that all people deserve the chance to live healthy and productive lives.

Not bad.  Almost sounds like the real thing. We could even weave in "dedicated", which Bill and Melinda seem to like so much, and tighten it up a bit, and get:

Dedicated to giving all people the chance to live healthy and productive lives.

Clean, clear, and direct.

Dedicated to action, not ideas about action. Dedicated to people, not ideas about people.

Doesn't that sound better? Indeed, doesn't that sound like something you could actually support?

For that matter, doesn't it sound like what they probably actually meant?


  1. With billions of dollars, you can't give the capacity for health and productivity to one person. You can give them a good shot.

    And in fact, they put a lot of money into immunizations. And fighting malaria and such.

    They put money into educational programs that help people be more productive, in all likelihood. But it's a crap shoot, right? Education doesn't *make* you more productive. But they can try different things, and see what works best, on average. For more people.

    They are dedicated to the idea that, if they try, they can optimize. Because, goddamit, a lot of people don't even get a fair chance, and they deserve at least that. Every one of them.

    In fact, they don't believe for a split second they have the ability to give an optimally healthy and productive life to a significant number of people. So much is lost to chance. Sensitivity to initial conditions. Ignorance on the part of third parties. Acts of God.

    But they can try to figure out best practices, and pass the information on.

    And they do think they have the power to propagate the idea by putting it on the radio.

    I'd say they got exactly that for which they paid. And they said it exactly according to the programs they perform, and their outreach and education and mission.

    The mission you assign them is lofty and noble, and strongly and nobly phrased. It just also happens to be completely and utterly impossible.

    But yeah, wouldn't it be *cool*?

    p.s. Joseph is going to Norwich University next month. You just died of old age. Me too. We can lean on each other for support or share a walker or something...:)

  2. I've seen some pretty unfortunate instances of NPR stations insisting on controlling the content and tone of underwriting spots. Is "rights," for example, really that dangerous a word? I know of at least one prominent NPR station that thinks so, despite the word's central position in, umm..., certain other high-profile documents.

    Anyway, I don't know that you can necessarily blame Bill and Melinda for this one.

  3. Where my mind has gone with this slogan is, "what are healthy, productive people?" The answer is: slaves.

    I want life (health), liberty (choice), and happiness (fulfillment.) I'm not into productive for it's own sake, or somebody else's sake. Productive happens only to get me to life and liberty as I pursue happiness.

    As far as the "a chance" part goes, I'm much more of a fan of taking a chance than being given one.

  4. @Shava: Here's how I see it: words are not actions, and ideas are not change. For the purposes of my particular rant here, I don't care whether the mission is possible or not. Dedication to an idea is not worth much without dedication to action -- at any level. As you point out, the foundation can (and does) so much more -- so why not make the mission statement reflect what they're actually doing instead of this abstraction? Why not encourage action rather than mere ideas in their listeners? What is the point of this statement?

    @tallcedars: you think Bill and Melinda's mission statement is dictated by NPR? Seriously? I think that when Bill sneezes, NPR gets a cold. Or at least wipes its face with its kerchief. :)

    @johnu: One man's "productive" is another man's -- art? I agree with you. I think. :)