I’m not the first columnist to invoke the name of the Roman emperor Vespasian and I won’t be the last. Vespasian famously levied a tax on urine collection around 70 AD. When his son complained about the disgusting smell wafting up from the lucrative urine pools, the father brandished a gold coin, saying: “Pecunia non olet.”
Rough translation: “But the money doesn’t smell.”
A hallmark of our time is the professed disgust with charitable gifts from purportedly tainted donors. Just a week ago, students at MIT raised a hoo-ha over renaming a lecture hall after a major donor, Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Shell traffics in hydrocarbons — you know, the energy powering the computer I am writing this story on — thus is ipso facto evil. According to a 2018 E&E News report, Shell “has been a member of lobbying and trade groups that promote climate skepticism and oppose climate policy.”
It continues: “In recent years, Royal Dutch Shell PLC . . . has taken a relatively aggressive stance toward recognizing climate change compared with other oil companies. Last year, the company said it wanted to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050 and increase its investment in renewables.”
So, does Shell’s money smell? Not to my nostrils.
Just before the weather turned, I was bicycling to a lunch appointment down Vassar Street in Cambridge, when I noticed MIT’s David H. Koch Childcare Center. Oh, my. It wasn’t so long ago that one couldn’t even breathe the name of the odious Koch brothers, Charles and David, in polite society. (David died in August.)
The Koch brothers were the piñata of choice for right-thinking people everywhere, accused of perverting the course of American democracy to lobby for their multifarious business interests in commodities, refining, and ranching, among others.
But of late, Charles Koch has spoken out against some cornerstone Donald Trump economic policies, and has lined up on the side of the angels in condemning mass incarceration and the government’s ham-handed “war on drugs.”
So would I allow my child to be sheltered in a Koch-supported day-care center, or to watch WGBH-2, where David Koch sat on the board, or enjoy the American Ballet Theatre, which has a Koch-named performance space? Of course.
Harvard has grappled over the years with donations from the Sackler family, now reviled for their connection to the opioid crisis; from convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein; and from a sewerful of equally reprehensible characters, e.g., Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In an opinion circulated in 1979, then-Harvard president Derek Bok argued against the “symbolic” value of returning controversial gifts: “[O]n the whole, I would be inclined to accept such donations,” Bok wrote, “on the ground that the tangible benefits of using the money . . . should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions.”
The “tangible benefits” of controversial donations are obvious: educating women and men, showcasing American ballet, or broadcasting “Sesame Street.” Of course the Kochs and the Epsteins of the world also benefit from their contributions, which marginally reduce their inherent loathsomeness in the eyes of many.
In his lifetime, John D. Rockefeller saw himself vilified, by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, as a “living mummy,” and “something indefinably repulsive.” So what are we to say to the University of Chicago, the Grand Teton National Park, or Manhattan’s magnificent Riverside Church, all of them financed from the wellspring of the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil monopoly?
I think the best thing to say is: Thank you.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.