Donating Happiness

By Jorge Jose Sepulveda E.

Emotional blackmail has been successfully adapted to the age of digital latifundism, where we possess but don’t own the means and are tricked in supporting the ends. I learned that when vicious wildfires were when vicious wildfires were blazing through Chile, and shortly after the town of Santa Olga burnt down. In the midst of catastrophe, Airbnb asked me imposingly casually in an email to let people affected by the fire stay without cost in my apartment. I didn’t, because I can’t afford to and because I knew that liquids and wet tissues were more needed. Nevertheless, I felt unease when deleting the mail because it appeared I had refused a plea for help.

Receiving a personal appreciation from the lady at the collection point where I left my donations made me realize that unease wasn’t necessary, rather I had almost fallen for Airbnb’s elaborate deployment of emotional blackmail. The company appealed to good spirits and deliberately linked them to others’ misfortune in cheesy language, mimicking a tactic often employed by street beggars. While extreme poverty excuses exaggerating emotions a bit, a multibillion dollar business doing so exhibits moral degradation. But I noticed that the trick seemed to work when Airbnb ‘offered’ free housing in the wake of President Bannon’s Muslim ban. Fortune, for example, dedicated a detailed article to such generosity and quoted enthusiastic landlords volunteering their property. They didn’t seem to notice that they served as nothing more than value-multipliers. Sure, donating should constitute a selfless act, with no expectation of any return whatsoever. And exactly for that reason it’d piss me off if someone claimed credit for my donation and boasted about liberal values, and how coverage of this generosity contributed to that someone’s increase in net value. The best propaganda is covert propaganda.

The San Fran start-up is the biggest hotelier in the world for a reason. It doesn’t actually own real estate that fits the purpose of a hotel business, and hence hasn’t got to cover maintenance and upgrading costs, neither insurance nor cleaning, like an actual hotel business. Modern hoteliers outsource those costs and instead devote time tend to the algorithm and mingle with the business press. Not even the company’s real donations to noble causes like immigration organizations are selfless, since the free movement of people is the basis of its business model. Liberal values are cheap, if you haven’t got to make a sacrifice.

Admittedly, these are bourgeois problems, seemingly hypocritical. I’m fortunate enough to own a home I can rent out and signing up to Airbnb and their charity scam is not obligatory. Nevertheless, of all other services I use Airbnb functions the best — and that’s not necessarily a good thing, as this suggests there is a festering global monopoly on accommodation rentals. While that problem may be solvable via competition, it’s worthwhile to take a deeper look at the opportunity emotional blackmail offers at the intersection of marketing and authoritarianism.

Tellingly, the concept seems to have been nurtured by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. To legitimize his rule, entrench the neoliberal counterrevolution in a Constitution, and to cover up large-scale theft and give Nazi-style governance a jaunty touch, the emotional blackmail was nourished on the back of vulnerable children when they brought the Telethon charity from the United States to Chile. There it got jazzed up to an extent, I have been told by senior Chileans, that unloaded so much schmalz on the audience that people were crying longer than the show lasted. Just like Airbnb, Teletón has made people feel bad so they’d do corporations’ bidding.

The ever-smiling and grandfatherly Mario Kreutzberger, known as Don Francisco has been face of that campaign. (Don in Latin America confers genuine respect, not mafia affiliations.) Don Francisco’s seemingly inherent unthreatening nature is key to get a nation behind an initiative with which the local elite wash their hands clean. The problem is therefore not so much that the charity exists, but rather it’s purpose. Indeed, it has largely remained scandal free and provides first-class health care that would otherwise be inaccessible. But that’s the point: behaving oneself and doing good does much to improve the corporate image and in turn raise the brand value. So, this kind of charity isn’t after real money, but after moral value. And while for Airbnb coverage of its generosity and liberal attitude serves as free marketing to its clientele, Teletón’s objective remains to shield a ruling elite from suspicions of corruption, theft, and to keep the flame of authoritarianism burning. For real.

Chile today is relatively democratic, but the transition of 1989 was nevertheless botched. The re-emerging left, reigned in by the dictatorship’s brutality, opted to accommodate to not challenge the authoritarian power arrangements that brought the coup in the first place. Stability was more important than democracy. This way the owners of the country, largely Pinochet supporters, could save their assets and keep undermining democracy even further. Yet, they also noticed how much Teletón had helped to divert attention from the crimes the dictatorship committed.

This entire scheme has permeated Chilean society completely. Teletón is all about doing good from a citizen’s perspective, and doing good while receiving free marketing from a corporate/latifundista view. The charity’s model is that well-known brands donate part of their income to Teletón’s programs that help children in need. To that end, citizens are blackmailed into buying more stuff than usual, since the higher a company’s income the higher its donation. Every year there’s a donation target that should be met and today’s social media sends ceaselessly updates about how much money is still missing. This further upsets people emotionally, because what happens to these children if the goals isn’t reached? Collecting the money people donate outside their contributions via shopping, is the task of Banco de Chile, owned by the Luksic’s, the country’s wealthiest family. They benefit from the notion that buying more stuff isn’t a real donation, because that contribution has been usurped and corporate brands, as does Airbnb does when offering free accommodation. This way, almost all donations that come from consumer brands are paid for by their customers, yet corporations also receive a fat tax cut and free marketing. The Luksic bank administrates all the Teletón money, an inflow of about $50.000.000 during three days for last year’s event. Sure, this money is destined to Teletón centres, but the bank doesn’t of course doesn’t just store it, they also invest it and receive interest. All in all, that’s big business without appearing as big business, thanks to the wonders of emotional blackmail.

Ironically, virtually none of the Teletón companies has measures in place that would support employment for physically impaired persons, because such measures cost money and aren’t celebrated with big events. Thus, like cute puppies in cruel families, affected children receive attention and care as long as they’re cute and perform tricks. Once they grow up they’re kicked out into the streets and beg for money, as adequate health care is basically unaffordable in Chile.

But not only do these kids serve the economic ends of emotional blackmail. In an episode from 2014 it becomes clear they also serve authoritarian ones. (Probably not an aberration in a country that hosted a dictatorship that’s still celebrated by liberals.) In that almost Goebbelsian instance, Don Francisco chatted with a little girl in a wheelchair, and then turned, accompanied by unbearable schmalz music, to an official of Chile’s police, the Carabinero, to impart on the entire force a prestigious Teletón medal. Don Francisco described the Carabineros as an institution of ‘national pride’ but lamented that they ‘receive more stones, punches, than medals.’ Thus he wanted this award to be seen as a ‘sorry for the incomprehension and, sometimes, for the necessity of repression.’ That occurred when the thousands of students protested against the failed, largely private education system, and police often provoked violence to suppress it then ferociously. The country, however, didn’t seem bothered by Don Francisco’s shameless promotion of state violence, never mind against the backdrop of the Carabinero’s murderous role in torture and executions during the dictatorship, and the current undeclared war against the Mapuche. It’s easy to be authoritarian under the cover of charity.

By and large the scheme works, however. It keeps most of the citizenry from demanding public social security, since criticizing Teletón is akin to literally throw children in need under the bus. Many people just don’t seem to be able to imagine that a public system could provide equally first class care, and doing this wouldn’t be a service but a right. It would liberate children from the mood and economic situation of their fellow citizens, which is actually a liberal thing. But bestowing a right instead of providing a service would eliminate the effectiveness of emotional blackmail thus diminish profits and the ability to easily influence large parts of the population. So whenever a someone richer and more powerful asks us mere mortals to do good, we probably should ask what’s wrong in the first place.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Santiago Times.