In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes to combat polio. You read that right. This piece of trivia is not as widely known anymore, because polio was effectively eradicated in 1955 with the widespread introduction of the Salk vaccine.
So why does the March of Dimes still exist, now as an organization researching, much more famously, birth defects? Put simply, when faced with the prospect of either closing up shop or changing missions, they chose the latter.
An organization changing its mission is hardly surprising. Plenty of foundations and nonprofits whose original purposes or missions have long since been forgotten are still operating. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as an organization that has successfully established itself is likely to be more effective at a new mission. But this phenomenon of organizational self-perpetuation is worth probing. Let’s call it the March of Dimes syndrome.
The March of Dimes Syndrome Writ Large
Now, the basic idea that people or interest groups seek self-perpetuation—we might also call it “continued relevance”—is also nothing new. We are used to thinking of business activity along these lines: in that field the impulse is called planned obsolescence. The idea is that no product should be so desirable or durable that it erases the need for a new product down the road. There is a built-in incentive against a company satisfying its customers too well.
This logic has also often been applied to government, with commentators noting the ease with which lawmakers and bureaucrats start new programs but the difficulty in getting them to end any programs. Milton Friedman’s famous quip that “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program” neatly encapsulates the idea.
It’s somewhat less familiar to claim this same logic and set of incentives—an organizational impulse to “stay in business” and to never quite solve the problem—applies to the philanthropic (or academic) worlds. But the logic applies here too, and here are a few examples other than the March of Dimes itself.
Pushing Lies about Victimhood
Andrew Sullivan, one of the earliest crusaders for gay marriage and a married gay man himself, has become disaffected by the current LGBT movement, which he accuses of pushing an unjustified narrative of victimhood. He declared at a recent LGBT conference, “These people’s [certain LGBT activists’] lives and careers and incomes depend on the maintenance of discrimination and oppression.”
Although we can argue over Sullivan’s particular claim, the basic idea holds: eliminating LGBT discrimination would in fact essentially render the LGBT movement obsolete. This does not mean, of course, that LGBT activists really want to see more oppression, nor does it mean that all the oppression they claim to see is simply made up. It does mean that the LGBT movement collectively has incentives to remain in existence. Defining where true dedication ends and the March of Dimes syndrome begins is unquestionably a gray area, but it is a gray area that exists.
One way to “stay in business” is to define down the meaning of discrimination or oppression, so words or behaviors that were once mainstream become verboten. That is partly what Sullivan was talking about, and it’s something we can observe in many activist movements, particularly in civil rights and anti-racism.
It is possible to view this cynically: faced with the possibility that racism as previously defined is largely eradicated, the machinery of race activism—the journals, magazines, websites, academic departments, publishing arms, and activist networks—is under quite a strong incentive to remain in business. Changing the definition of racism so enough racism always remains to justify that machinery accomplishes this.
Merchandising Fear and Loathing
It is worth spelling out, quite apart from incentives, just how similar this process looks to marketing or merchandising. Once, racism was understood as an ideology or law that elevated some races over others, usually expressed with anger or violence. Then racism was largely understood as discrimination based upon race, such as job or housing refusals, or hate crimes.
In the 1970s, the definition was changed to focus on society rather than individuals: racial discrepancies were, unless proven otherwise, evidence that the machinery of society operated upon racist principles, regardless of the racial feelings of the individuals involved. That would be “institutional” or “systemic” racism. Today, while that understanding remains, there is even a new kind of racism: microaggressions, or sometimes-unconscious statements that reflect bigotry or discriminatory feelings. It is now increasingly common to claim that racism is actually getting worse, or even that our society is so suffused by racism that it has become permanent.
The actual progression of these ideas would not look any different if the conversation inside the offices of anti-racist magazines/academic departments/activist organizations went something like this (and I am not saying that it does): “Drat—we’ve almost reached racial equality. What do we all do then? Quick, someone come up with a new definition of racism. ‘Built into society, can’t be rooted out’? Great! We’ll never go out of business using that definition!”
Just because an organization or movement exhibits March of Dimes syndrome does not mean the work it does is without value, or that its grievances are without merit. It does not even mean the syndrome is manifesting itself consciously or cynically, as it would be impossible to know.
The point is that there is something other than selfless dedication at work, not only in the business world, but almost everywhere that large networks of people expend great energy and effort toward a common goal. Understanding and recognizing this, far from discrediting such work, will provide it with a necessary moderating and enlightening force. Since the many of the grievances of LGBT Americans, African-Americans, and others are real, that would be an improvement for everyone involved.