Trojan charities

Institutional drift leftwards does not have to be inevitable

Artillery Row

As an Englishman, I always had the vague sense that the ACLU existed to defend civil liberties. It is, after all, the American Civil Liberties Union. It was founded, in its own words, “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country”.

So, why did the ACLU assist Amber Heard in writing the article about domestic violence that got her sued by Johnny Depp? According to Associated Press, “It was the ACLU that drafted the article under Heard’s name, reflecting her role as an ACLU ambassador on gender violence issues.”

When archbishops start opining on Brexit, you have to wonder

I take no position on the Heard/Depp scandal, except to gently offer the suggestion that Hollywood be razed to the ground (which should then be salted), but why on Earth was the ACLU involving itself in a case of alleged domestic violence between private citizens? Because Heard was an ACLU ambassador? What does that have to do with anything? Should its lawyers have appeared in Aquaman as well? Domestic violence is a serious matter, of course, but it no more concerns the ACLU than the Russo-Ukrainian War concerns the National Union of Teachers.

The ACLU has drifted from the realms of civil liberties into the realms of “social justice”. In 2020, one of its lawyers even advocated “stopping the circulation” of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, which criticises the trans rights movement. Not since the associate editor of Index on Censorship rhetorically widdled on the grave of the newly murdered Theo van Gogh has someone so colourfully misunderstood the essence of their work.

In 1989, John O’Sullivan of National Review coined O’Sullivan’s Law: “all organisations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” Countless examples spring into the mind like toast. Is the Church of England a religious institution or a Lib Dem think tank with some eccentric uniforms? Of course religion and politics are going to intersect, but when archbishops start opining on Brexit you have to wonder. Is the Amnesty International which is now so heavily concerned with trans rights and abortion rights the same Amnesty International that used to defend political prisoners, or a kind of imitator? Both, I guess.

But how inevitable is O’Sullivan’s Law? In recent times, some institutions have avoided drifting leftwards. Substack, a platform for writers and podcasters, have raised progressive hackles by refusing to exclude alleged transphobes. “As we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable,” its founders have boldly said, “our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.” Elsewhere, Elon Musk has attempted to purchase Twitter in explicit opposition to its censorious policies.

Clearly, and understandably, neither institution aims to be “right-wing” (except inasmuch as anything which is not explicitly progressive earns the label). Nor do many others. How do they resist the logic of O’Sullivan’s Law?

As a grubby hack I have no more experience running large organisations than I do making rockets and curing heart disease, but I have a couple of modest suggestions. First, the leaders of an institution should ensure that its values are not open-ended but contextually specific. You can be “inclusive” in the concrete sense that anyone can be included among applicants, for example. But if “inclusivity” is just a vague ideal, then the demands made in its name are liable to expand until your institution is no more than an excuse for an HR department.

An institution should not seek scale at the expense of integrity

Second, such leaders should surround themselves with people who admire the essential ethos of the institution. Conquest’s Second Law (named after Robert, the historian) states, “The behaviour of an organisation can best be predicted by assuming it to be controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.” (Conquest pointed out that this can be literally true, such as when a bunch of smart young lads from good families graduated from Cambridge to the Secret Intelligence Services and started feeding information to the Soviets.) You can disagree on 99 out of 100 things but you have to share core premises. If I start a panda preservation society, for example, it makes no sense to give a management position to someone who thinks conserving endangered species is a waste of money and pandas are faintly ridiculous creatures. Their qualifications and experience are immaterial.

Third, an institution should not seek scale at the expense of integrity. This is especially the case with non-profit institutions. Expansion — and all the jolly business of fundraising and management that comes with it — can emphasise the means of its existence over its ends. This then makes it vulnerable to redirection.

Fourthly, and finally, any leader of an institution (especially a business) should avoid the temptation to use progressive cultural causes as a means of “woke-washing” themselves. You know what I mean. It seems like an easier way of getting moral status than, say, treating workers well. But (and I will phrase this in cynical terms because self-interest means more to us than ethics) we would do well to remember that demands can escalate. Workers can be satisfied. Professional activists? Not so much.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover