Good Grief

One of the most amazing riffs I’ve ever heard at a conference was created by Martin Varsavksy, the Argentinian-born, Madrid-based entreprenuer behind FON, who was moderater of a panel titled “How To Be Good?” at the DLD Conference in Munich Germany last week. What’s more, the riff led to an even more fascinating exchange with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, who pontificated on the One Laptop Per Child.


After the panelists introduced themselves, Varsavsky noted that the panelists were all from America — one from NY, one worked for HP out of Palo Alto, CA, and the other was Nicholas Negroponte from MIT. Varsavsky asked the question: “Do you have to be American to be good?” Then he answered his own question: “I know it sounds silly and stupid and all of you will say, ‘you don’t have to be American…’ but wanting to be good seems to be an American vocation.” Varsavsky wasn’t finished and he cracked an impish smile. He mentioned reading an article in Harper’s magazine called “An Army of Altruists.” He said: “There’s no way to show that Americans joined the military because of money. There’s enormous altruism in joining the army. A lot of altruism in thinking that they will do good but also a lot of harm. It is dangerous to try to do good and then failing.”

He continued: “I was reading about violent death and I saw that Americans lead the industrialized countries in violent death. But if you consider suicide violent death, then it evens out because Europeans are very likely to take violent action against themselves. So Americans want to take action, they say: I know how to fix your life. I’ll kill you.” Europeans say: “I know how to fix my life. I’ll kill myself.” When you take both, you find out that rate of violent death is the same in Europe and America.”

“I’m trying to say that none of these American initiatives will succeed if there’s no buy-in in the rest of the world. ” So thus having buttressed his argument, he asked the panelists to describe what they are doing outside of America. Two of the panelists gave the expected comment that they have feet on the ground in the countries they are working in and depend on local knowledge and involvement. When it came to Negroponte, Varsavsky asked if he was sitting in Boston trying to think about how to save the world.

Negroponte said: “First of all, I was in Boston 10 days last year, I carry an EU passport, I did half my education in Europe and my family is 100% European. Yes, I did study at MIT and spent a good portion of my life there. But I don’t think of myself as a citizen of any country at all. I have no nation. I think nationalism is a disease and it’s a disease that has really hurt the world. ” After a brief round of applause, he continued. I thought I was listening to Phillip Nolan in Edward Everett Hale’s story, The Man Without A Country.”

Having provided therefore his qualifications to speak on behalf of the whole world, Negroponte said: “I don’t wake up in the morning saying I’m doing good. I just don’t. But it is true that the concept of charity in America is more entrenched than it is in Europe.” He proceeded to explain that Americans have learned that passing wealth to the next generation is generally a bad thing and so they want to give away their wealth rather than retain it. He said in Europe wealth is accumulated in hopes of benefiting the next generation and he cited his own mother who even in her final years would not wish to part with any of what she would likely leave behind.

European families, he said, hope that their children will work in the family business. He talked about how his father who was a Greek shipping magnate encouraged his four sons to not follow in the family business. One became a painter, another a filmmaker; Nicholas stayed at the university, and his older brother went into the civil service. Negroponte didn’t say, of course, that his brother, John Negroponte, is now the second-ranking person in the State Department in the Bush administration, after a previous stint as Director of National Intelligence.

Maybe this session could have been titled “feeling bad about doing good” because that’s the feeling I came away with.