How many times can journalists write the same story? That's what I wondered when reading the most recent accounts of the MacArthur Fellows Program — informally known as "Genius Grants" — whose new members were announced this week. The unexpected phone call. The disbelief. The overwhelmed gratitude. It's a script as predictable as any romantic comedy or slasher movie.
The members of this year's cohort were also predictable. The fellows, chosen by a secretive board of recommenders, are nominally selected for "exceptional creativity," "promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments," and "potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work." But they really seem to be chosen on the basis of political commitment, academic fashion, and prior success with major cultural institutions. That explains why almost all of this year's fellows, including the ubiquitous Ibram X. Kendi, are dedicated to progresive conceptions of racial justice. And several have recently won other high profile awards.
Complaints about the political slant and self-congratulatory faddishness of the fellowships are nothing new. In 1995, columnist John Leo unleashed a widely-circulated broadside against the year's cohort. Feminism loomed larger than race in that iteration of the culture war. Leo was particularly annoyed by the selection of musicologist Susan McClary, who argued that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was a sort of tonal rape fantasy.
The most interesting thing about the MacArthur fellowships is that they weren't supposed to be this way. In 2010, the philanthropy critic Martin Morse Wooster explored the program's origins in a long piece for Commentary. His conclusions are surprising — and relevant for understanding the changing role of major foundations over the last several decades.
Although the current leadership rejects the term, first of all, the fellowships really were intended as "genius grants." J. Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation's founder and leader of the fellowship program in its formative period, said, "Our aim is to support individual genius and free those people from the bureaucratic pettiness of academe." The anonymous selection process was designed to remove the institutional restraints that might burden great minds. Because there were no applications, the foundation would take care of the paperwork that stood in the way of discovery.
These assumptions led to early classes that were heavy on natural scientists. But a problem soon emerged: Scientists didn't need the money. Generous though they were, cash awards didn't make much difference to the bottom line of high tech research. And successful scientists tended to be so set in their ways that the windfall didn't alter their behavior.
Criticized for lavishing money where it had little impact, the foundation turned to culture. Here, though, it was harder to identify uncontroversially worth recipients. The initial awards went to stalwarts like the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. By the time he received the fellowship, though, his productive years were long behind him. Some early fellows, like the filmmaker John Sayles, did proceed from relative obscurity to successful artistic careers. But most were already known quantities when they were selected or never achieved the prominence for which they were earmarked (the mediocrity of MacArthur recognized genius is a plot point in the 2019 film Marriage Story).
The irrelevance of the fellowship in science and the difficulty of identifying genuine artistic excellence encouraged an emphasis on politics. John D. MacArthur was a self-made billionaire, whose political views had a Midwestern Republican cast. His selections for the foundation's board, including William E. Simon, who served as treasury secretary under Nixon, reflected that perspective and planned to avoid the leftward drift of Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and other big foundations established with great industrial fortunes.
MacArthur's son "Rod" had different ideas. By the early 1980s, almost all the conservative influences were gone. A few fellows with right-of-center views were initially selected, such as Polish emigre philosopher Lesczek Kolakowski, but as time went on, the annual lists ranged only from liberal to left, provoking the very controversies that are recurring today.
By itself, the history of the Macarthur fellowships reads more as comedy than tragedy. It's hard to review the list of beneficiaries and conclude that the program is anything but a waste of money. Some fellows didn't need it, others didn't deserve it. And almost none seem to have changed their intellectual, artistic, or political trajectories thanks to the unexpected windfall.
The problem is that the "genius grants" are closer to the rule than the exception for big foundations. Rather than rewarding actual achievement in science, culture, or even politics, they shower resources on individuals or organizations they deem morally worthy. In a 2014 polemic, Thomas Frank described the underlying principle as a "doctrine of saintly imitation." The good fortune of a chosen few "is supposed to inspire others to emulate them, to follow them in the paths of creative righteousness."
That's a long way from the program's original purpose of liberating some American Einstein from the drudgery of the patent office. It's also a compelling element of the case that the commanding heights of American philanthropy have been captured by a pseudo-religious ideology that does not justify the regulatory and tax advantages the MacArthur Foundation and its counterparts enjoy. Like breathless coverage of the grants, criticism of the fellows seem like a broken record. One day, though, it may break through, with serious consequences for our self-appointed priesthood.