passing on morality: the foundation for a better life

Smile: Pass It On
–tagline, billboard showing the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, The Foundation for a Better Life

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic- their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose…But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

In cities like Long Beach, California, there is significantly less need for billboards than you might think. The reason for this is fairly simple: nobody has the money to buy anything that isn’t extremely self-explanatory. I lived on a block with a hotel that wasn’t a hotel (it was a pay-by-the-week homeless shelter), a drinking water store (OK, I admit it, not self-explanatory), a barber shop that was obviously a front and hosted parties until 1 am every Thursday night, and a barbecue place. Large expanses of unclaimed, wasted sky stretch wordlessly from the low tops of the sagging buildings; the sky is grey on most nights, except for an orange rind of light pollution, and the stars don’t appear.

Into these open spaces, which ClearChannel has called “the last American frontier,” a slow and persistent growth of shiny optimism has gradually taken root, white as white picket fences, in high definition serif fonts and resplendent with enlarged photos. It’s quite possible you’ve seen these billboards yourself. They aren’t really advertisements for anything. Instead, they promote moral virtues: overcoming, living-your-dreams, innovation, and so forth.

Their manner of promoting moral virtues is extremely strange, and draws upon the “Think Different” ads pioneered by Apple a few years back (even the font is the same). They mostly reproduce images of somebody the audience might already know, such as Mother Teresa or Mister Rogers, usually (but not always) providing a name. Since these are public figures, their likenesses can be used without permission. There is some kind of mystifying tagline, which is both supposed to explain the moral significance of the image and to increase the feeling of cloying familiarity — perhaps because the people designing the billboards think of morality in those terms, as something lurking cheerfully behind the next tree or streetlight, eager to give you a hearty slap on the back.

If you are like me — and, according to these billboards, you and I are identical in every way — you are probably wondering who is concerned enough about the lack of Sportsmanship and Perseverence in Long Beach to feel impelled, one billboard at a time, to rake their money into a huge pile and set it (figuratively speaking) on fire. I remember thinking, “this must be some kind of expiation.”


Well, these billboards are the love children of The Foundation for a Better Life, which is not so much a “foundation” as a bunch of people who are trying to get to the end of a $700 million grant from Phil Anschutz. Some fun facts about Phil, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Often identified as “Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz,” he is a Republican donor who supported George W. Bush’s administration. He has been an active patron of a number of religious and conservative causes:

Helped fund Colorado’s 1992 Amendment 2, a ballot initiative designed to overturn local and state laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation but was invalidated by Romer v. Evans after it passed.

Helped fund the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle, Washington that promotes intelligent design and criticizes evolution.

Supported the Parents Television Council, a group that protests against television indecency.

Financed and distributed films with Christian themes, such as Amazing Grace and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for mass audiences through his two film production companies and ownership of much of the Regal, Edwards and United Artists theater chains.

Financed The Foundation for a Better Life.

Anschutz owns more farm and cattle land than any other private citizen in the country, though he’s made most of his fortune in oil, drinking up other men’s milkshakes. He is also a major player in the entertainment industry. But when I think about The Foundation For A Better Life, as I so often do whenever I drive somewhere in Long Beach, I find myself returning to these two questions, from the foundation’s Frequently Asked Questions page (on http://www.values.com, which amazingly enough they own):

Can I give The Foundation for a Better Life money?
We do not solicit nor accept any money.

Can The Foundation for a Better Life give me money?
The Foundation does not give grants or any other aid. We exist to promote positive messages that encourage and inspire a better life.

In other words, this is a foundation that believes itself to be at the forefront of promoting better lives for Americans, and yet somehow would have no use for additional funds that could be spent on additional moralizing. Even more importantly, regardless of which charitable figures it appropriates for its posters, the foundation also does not believe that it should devote a single dollar to making better lives possible for Americans feeling particularly encouraged and inspired to seek them. This is how Anschutz solved the problem of how much to give to whom: he merely wants you to know that it is possible to go “from homeless to Harvard,” leaving it to other people to figure out what scholarships you’ll need.

Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.

“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.

“That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him.

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