Oprah Winfrey has hardly been known as a conservative icon, but in many ways her life is a paradigm of the up-by-the-bootstraps scrappy rise that Reaganites foresee for the impoverished but inspired. Even if a weepy sentimentalism pervades her show, she has shown remarkable ability in the boardroom. This lady knows how to assure her talent is compensated.
Interestingly, she has now become a test case for private philanthropy and its discontents, despairs and downsides. And this is an area in which conservatives have a very real stake.
A few years ago, encouraged by Nelson Mandela, Oprah put up thirty million or so dollars to create a nice school for girls in South Africa. The campus matches up with tony American prep schools. Just walking onto those lushly landscaped grounds gives a youngster from a hardscrabble background a flash of hope. The shantytowns, the grimy streets, the petty crime, the howling echo of rage on the narrow streets, need not be destiny. Educate yourself, better yourself, free yourself.
The school was getting high marks from observers these last few years, other than a few gripes about being too strict. Even making allowances for hype, it looked to be a good example of how private foundations and individuals can be more effective than public bureaucracies in improving the lot of ordinary people. Then tragedy struck. One of the dorm mothers has been accused by four different students of forcing herself upon them in sexual ways.
Now this sort of breakdown can occur in any project. All it takes is one stealthy abuser who has no prior record and can get through even a rigorous screening process. There is no real reflection here on Oprah or the supervisors she put in place. Still, after a bout of weeping, she has personally jumped all over this thing. Heads have rolled and a number of new failsafes will be built into the hiring and administrative process. If only because she does not want to be publicly humiliated again, I think we can count on this never being allowed to happen again.
Which brings us to the general condition of American philanthropy and the interest conservative types have in that arena. It becomes difficult to argue that the government should be less involved in throwing money at social ills if the capitalist cash is also chasing its tail. When we see the Gates and Soros fortunes being squandered on the most asinine retrograde causes like convincing people not to have children, it makes us pine for the days of the government welfare check, which at least bought a poor lady a lottery ticket.
The type of undertaking Oprah has modeled here is extraordinarily useful and meaningful in this context. There is a style that works: writing the check yourself, laying out your vision and remaining involved with veto power even when it is off the ground. And the substance of the project is valuable as well. Instead of handouts, we give people a hand up. Instead of giving them fish, teach them how to fish, as the parable goes. A real school with superior education, tough rules, real goals; this is private charity at its pinnacle.
In fact, having successful alumni over time entering the mainstream of economic and creative life will stimulate others into emulating this approach. Believe it or not, the American ghetto has thus far proven less amenable to such innovations (especially in single-sex format) than its African counterpart. Nothing would make me happier than seeing a string of such schools across America, in both it urban and rural poverty clusters. If that ever happened, I would be the first to sign the petition to get Oprah a first-class seat in Heaven.
When the fault lines started creaking in the wake of this scandal, there was a danger of a cultural and political earthquake that would empower the Hillary Clinton types to take more from the village while promising to give it back more efficaciously. Ya see, they say, only an official alphabet-soup bureaucracy can keep our most vulnerable citizens safe. Kudos to Oprah for showing that charity not only begins at home, it can continue at home as well. She stayed on top of it and did not let it get away from her.
One last thought. There will always be predators and some will slip through the best structured and best-intentioned systems. Once they are identified, it shows courage when the powers that be step up and do not run for cover.