Corporate Good?

With all of the deserved criticism and outrage fixed on corporate America right now — by the 99% who have been hurt badly but continue to pay the price, while the 1% grows richer — it might seem odd for me to consider applauding a corporate executive today (read on…), after having soundly voiced my solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement two days ago.

And yet, regular Fish & Bicycles readers, particularly readers of my Celebrating Eco-Progress series, know that I firmly believe in positive reinforcement, that when corporations do happen to do something good we should let them know how much we approve and how much we’d love to see them do more of the same.

Well today, I couldn’t resist writing about Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio, and wondering whether or not he deserves praise for the following.

Via The New York Times:

It is trickier than ever for an author to persuade a publisher to finance a traditional book tour. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are decreasing, travel is expensive, and money for marketing and promotion is increasingly being spent online.

So it is striking that Leymah Gbowee, a relatively unknown author of a memoir describing her life as a peace activist in war-torn Liberia, has just embarked on an eight-city tour to promote her book, “Mighty Be Our Powers,” which was released by the tiny Beast Books on Tuesday.

The tour is possible because Ms. Gbowee has wrangled an unusual sponsor: Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble, who is personally covering the costs…

He emphasized that the donation came from his personal funds, not through Barnes & Noble. (He declined to name the exact sum, saying only that it was “not a lot of money.”)

“If you met her and she said, ‘I need some money to help me get my message out,’ ” Mr. Riggio said, “I guarantee you would write her a check.”

Now, the irony does not escape me for a minute that companies like Barnes & Noble (B&N) were instrumental in the closing of many a locally-owned brick-and-mortar bookstore. Likewise, Riggio’s emphasis that his gift was from him and NOT from B&N seems suspicious, as if he’s protecting B&N from having to commit to long-term philanthropy or something.

It’s just that I have a deep-rooted belief in not throwing out the baby with the bath water, in always trying to find a silver lining or a redeeming factor in the midst of even the worst situations, and I was touched by Gbowee’s story and Riggio’s gift.

It seems fitting to mention the passing of Steve Jobs in this post and the fact that I’ve been having a debate with an old friend who is outraged at how Jobs was practically worshiped by so many, despite the fact that he was firmly part of the 1% responsible for hoarding wealth at the expense of the 99%.

I’ve been arguing that, yes, the worship is indeed over-the-top, but that Jobs did have a number of remarkable admirable qualities, and that he should be viewed as a characteristically flawed human who happened to have been a creative genius.

Corporations would like us to believe that they deserve the same rights as people, and maybe that’s what people and corporations have in common: They are both susceptible to flaws and have the capacity to do good or evil?

I end with a question mark because I really don’t know the answer, but I stand by my view that good deeds should be acknowledged and appreciated. Yes, it would be great if people always performed good deeds selflessly, without a desire for getting credit, but we really aren’t there yet as a species, so I still see positive reinforcement as a necessary transitional strategy.

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