[ For anyone who is keeping track of these things, we are forgoing the full issue that we had planned to release today and will return to our regularly-scheduled issue on this Friday Dec. 5. The following interview with Andy Crouch was done by our friend Matt Conner and originally appeared on the lighthearted, yet thoughtful group blog that he coordinates. Thanks Matt! ]
In our final of three interviews focused on the Christian’s response to social justice, our attention turns to one of my favorite interview subjects – Andy Crouch. Andy is the author of the fantastic new book, Culture Making – a much needed treatise for the intersection of faith and culture. He’s also director of the Christian Vision Project for Christianity Today.
I’ve interviewed Andy twice now and each time is drinking from a mental fire hydrant and you come away refreshed and challenged by what Crouch comes up with. This time was no different than the first as he discusses the warnings for those of us charting toward the waters of social justice.
Matt: What’s the balance for counter-cultural movements with their work toward social justice and the mainstreaming of those movements?
Andy Crouch: I think we have to recognize that the mainstreaming of alternative movements is a continual process in American culture since the 1960s. It’s been happening for a long time, so it’s not that new. It’s just the latest version of it now, where something that begins as even very consciously outside the mainstream is adopted for commercial purposes.
I think it’s really double-edged sword. Here’s the positive thing about it: to the extent that social movements that become part of a profitable enterprise, they are much more scalable than they are when they’re not-for-profit. Because a not-for-profit is always have to replenish its resources, whereas a profitable enterprise has found a way to provide something that’s of sufficient value for people that it can actually grow from the generation of excess income. In a way, I celebrate the fact. When anything becomes mainstream enough that people can make money doing it [Laughs]…
I am not of those who are firmly opposed to anyone ever making economic profit. I think economic profit is a sign that you’re connecting with people in a significant way. And the fact that companies are finding it economically profitable to align themselves with really important causes is really encouraging. It’s a sign of success.
There’s an interesting parallel to this and I hesitate to speak about it too much because of some complexities there I don’t understand. But are you familiar with the Compartamos. It’s a Mexican company that’s a for-profit company that’s getting into microfinance. So microfinance has been the field essentially for not-for-profit enterprises, even though they can be quite large like Opportunity International, but they’re not structured to return an economic profit to shareholders. So this means they’re always raising money, among other things, even though they are banks.
Well, Compartamos has said “Maybe we cannot serve the poorest of the poor, but we can serve that 20-50 percentile. The folks that are below middle class but not the absolutely poor. They have no banking services and we can come in and do microfinance and pitch it to hedge funds. We’re going to make an economic return and grow it like crazy.” Now there has been an interesting backlash against this from the not-for-profit microfinance community because they do charge slightly higher interest rates than their organizations do. But really I have to believe that, in some way, that’s a good thing. People realize there’s a scalable, sustainable economic model that are giving the poor access to loans, that allow the poor to start and grow businesses. This is all good. So my first reaction is that this is not a bad thing at all.
The second thing is that we have to be discerning because not all corporate gestures toward social responsibility are equally helpful. For example, to the extent that these sort-of public positioning of companies in socially responsible spaces – meaning just a very small amount really to get charity but we feel okay because we have a red iPod instead of a black iPod – I think it really can divert us from much more fundamental questions of justice and equity.
And it absolutely can become a very superficial way and a very low-cost way to feel like we’re doing something. And after all, that is the premise of consumer culture – that it’s not going to be hard. That’s the basic promise of most consumption is that things will be easy for us and not that expensive. So the to the extent that it perpetuates the idea that pursuing justice will be basically easy and it’s something you can just slot into your life, then obviously that’s no help at all.
Matt: You said there are many instances of this happening? I guess my mind goes to punk music as an example?
Andy: Blue jeans are a working class metaphor until they become a counter-cultural uniform until they become the mainstream thing that everybody wears. It’s always amazing to me that there’s no room I can go to in the world, at least with middle class people and especially here in America, that you can’t find at least one pair of blue jeans. They were originally a counter-cultural statement about identification with the working class and branching out of middle class comformity and now there’s nothing more middle class to wear than a pair of blue jeans which I am wearing right now.
Something is originally very transgressive and then it’s used to sell kind-of edgy products and then suddenly Bob Dylan is selling Pepsi. That’s the famous example, right? American commercial culture is really good at taking something that was edgy and transgressive and dangerous and making it a marker of middle class identity without any real change. We’re not calling you to really change. And to that extent, this is one more example of it. It’s not all bad because it at least gets people to think a little bit, but it’s certainly not fundamental. It’s not going to lead us to the Promised Land that for-profit companies are getting hip to these things.
Matt: Give me a major cultural warning sign that we should be looking out for in terms of this social justice meets commercialization movement.
Andy: Any time that human beings are presented primarily as objects for our charity and their name is used to induce guilt, I think that’s a warning sign. Now, there are times that what people need is a gift. But most human beings need opportunity, not charity. To the extent that many of these campaigns really force the idea of ‘we have so much and they have so little,’ that actually keeps the focus on material possessions. The relevant thing that we have a lot of that the rest of the world has very little of is opportunity, not material goods.
At a moment of disaster, people need charity and relief. They need to be sent food and sent supplies and so forth. But in conditions of persistent poverty or where there are the fruits of years of injustice, such as the lambs policies in Latin America where maybe 2% of the population controls 80% of the land – just unbelievable wealth inequity – what’s needed is not to send things, but to encourage changing structures, so that people can have the dignity of doing what God created them to do. It’s the vine and the fig tree – the vision of the prophet where everyone has their own vine and fig tree sitting in peace and unafraid.
Unfortunately a lot of what I see perpetuated, because it’s so viscerally appealing, are these images that make us see this immediate need for charity that doesn’t help. I don’t often encounter campaigns from commercial sources that help me really think about the roots of why that child is hungry. That child might need food today but that child is not primarily someone in a different category than me who needs me to be generous to them. They are the same as me, meaning they need the opportunity to grow up where they can realize some of their capacities.
Matt: So the t-shirt doesn’t enable that level?
Andy: It doesn’t. Our natural thought when becoming aware of our abundance is to feel this sort of very superficial guilt, which then will persuade those who walk by to make a slightly different purchase. Really what’s needed is so much more creative than that, which is very hard. It’s so hard. An incredible example of this , and I endorse only about 30% of what the Atkins Institute does, but if you go to their website, look for some writing there about clothing donations from the first world. We have all these organizations like Goodwill that gather all of our used t-shirts and those have no value in America. They’re not actually sold at thrift stores. They actually get packed into bales and sent to other parts of the world where they’re handed out as basically free clothing.
What this has done is decimated local clothing industries, so that in Haiti, for example, it used to be possible to make a modest living as a tailor making clothes. But now that there are literally bales of North American t-shirts arriving every week, that’s driven out the possibility of making a living by making clothes. So we think that we’re giving our used t-shirt so that some poor child can be clothed, but what actually ends up happening is you’re actually robbing someone of an actual job that provides ongoing dignity. You’re actually robbing them rather than giving them something. And when we’re in the charity mindset rather than giving them a lot.
Matt: The concept of selling out? Does that apply? is that a poor question in the first place.
Andy: I don’t find selling out to be a useful concept. Look, there are ways to be just as morally compromised and be unsuccessful as there are ways to be morally compromised and be successful. People can also be just as manipulative and out for their own gain playing in tiny bars as they can playing in stadiums. So if what we mean by selling out is becoming successful and connecting with an audience, I think it’s sour grapes most of the time. At the same time, I think we all frankly have to ask, ‘What has God made me to create that only I can make? And if what I am making is derivative and basically a facsimile offered up to a culture often satisfied with facsimiles, then what am I doing?’ But to be honest, I hear more low-quality, derivative, not very thoughtful and unengaged art among people who are not successful than among people who are. So we can all be in danger of selling out – I don’t think it’s a matter of fame.