My cherished alma mater UCLA is returning $3 million that disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling pledged via his Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation to support the medical school’s kidney research. How noble of my old school — and how dumber than dumb to give back the cash.
The university is returning the first $425,000 payment and will not accept the balance of the money, calling Sterling’s racist comments in a recorded conversation with a female friend “divisive and hurtful.”
The school patted itself on the back: “Mr. Sterling … demonstrate(s) that he does not share UCLA’s core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion and respect.”
Oh, please. The first core value of a medical school is to help save lives, regardless.
Sterling’s money would have gone to Dr. Ira Kurtz, a professor of medicine in UCLA’s Division of Nephrology, to fund research on the structural properties of key proteins in the kidney that affect its function in health and disease. The project’s ultimate goal is to aid in the development of drugs to treat patients with kidney disorders.
I once had a slight “kidney disorder,” and it makes me crazy to think Kurtz won’t have his $3 million because my university’s bureaucrats value correctness over life.
Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of dirty money around, and some of it is from bad people that goes to good causes.
We know about the Koch brothers’ “dark money” empire that spent more than $400 million in the 2012 election cycle alone, the money going to all the usual ultra-right-wing causes. (Dark because it’s almost impossible find out the exact sums going to which front groups.)
Liberals don’t have that kind of cash, but we sure try. How else can we fund our mailings, phone trees and begging emails? It’s a real dilemma: to stay deaf, dumb and blind to the ultimate sources of the cash we ask for.
One of our dirty little secrets is how dependent key liberal organizations are on rich folks. Almost all the prestigious ones survive, and are neutered by, money from “questionable sources.” Examples: MoveOn is partly funded by Linda Pritzker, whose fortune comes from the Hyatt hotel chain, which was dubbed by the housekeepers union Unite Here “the worst hotel employer in America.” MoveOn and other liberal groups are helped by billionaire currency speculator George Soros (self-described), who plays both sides of the street by donating to humanitarian causes — like the Open Society to promote democracy overseas — while creating chaos in Third World countries by his financial manipulations. And so on.
As Donald Sterling found out, you buy your way into heaven by doing good and hope people have bad memories. Ever thus has it been so.
There’s a very long, historically blessed tradition of paying for whitewash. The benevolent Guggenheim family, having cruelly exploited Colorado copper miners and Belgian Congo rubber workers, bought respectability by pouring tons of cash into worthy causes and the arts; who wouldn’t want a Guggenheim grant? The Rockefellers, of the Ludlow mining camp massacre in which women and children were machine-gunned (and the more modern Nelson Rockefeller’s direction of the Attica prison bloodbath), have given billions to grateful grantees. And so on with Carnegie, Ford et al. It doesn’t matter if the money is given for public relations or sincerely as an act of redemption, so long as we’re clear about the chain of ownership.
I’m hardly one to talk. I worked for a CIA-funded magazine in London because the editor liked my stuff and paid on time. And I happily taught at a school funded by, and named for, a wonderfully wealthy family with its roots in mob violence and tax fraud.
What’s the lesson? Money has no morals. My own compromised view is that, as a courtesy, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, but you try to keep a clear head about where it’s from while you spend their cash to do the most good.
UCLA’s Kurtz and I could use Sterling’s tainted three mill. Lord knows when I’ll come down with some kidney ailment, and I sure would like to have some of Kurtz’s pills around when I need them.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist, most recently of "Hemingway Lives!"Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times