The Gospel of Failure

Our ruling classes just keep insisting on the same bad ideas.

Let me say, first, that I take no joy in Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce. The union of two souls in one flesh is a deep-set spiritual reality, whether the participants know that or not. Things fuse so naturally in marriage that you hardly notice: bank accounts, social networks, families. Untwining two lives means tearing all that asunder. It can devastate even adult children, of which the Gateses have three. I grieve for them. 

But because I take this so seriously, I cannot help remarking that these two people have expressed no intention to reflect, even for a second, on what divorce implies about their qualifications as global lifestyle coaches. Absent from all their public statements thus far has been any indication that this represents a significant personal breakdown for both of them, or that such breakdowns should give pause to people who wish to tell us all, every one of us, how to live. 

The Gateses are reassuring the public that their separation will have effectively no consequences for their other partnership, the Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationPeople all over the world are anxious that this enormous charitable endeavor should continue uninterrupted. The foundation has comforted them by announcing that Bill and Melinda “will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues and set the organization’s overall direction.” 

In practice this statement will turn out to be heavily footnoted: Mr. and Ms. Gates both have separate firms of their own, through which they will continue to pursue independent ventures and objectives. Melinda, in particular, is widely acknowledged to have ambitions to the left of her soon-to-be former husband. “You could imagine Melinda Gates being a much more progressive giver on her own,” said David Callahan, founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy. “She’s going to be a major force in philanthropy for decades to come.” 

But should she? The Gateses’ philanthropic donations, like all acts of charity, are values-driven: they fund things that they think ought to happen. Plenty of good can be done this way, of course. But it’s inevitably meddlesome as well: when you give someone money to do something, you encourage them to do it. When you do this on the scale of the Gateses, it can start to look a lot like cultural imperialism.  

Consider the enormous sums of money that Melinda has earmarked for “family planning” in Africa. Obianuju Ekeocha, an African woman and pro-life activist, wrote in an open letter that funneling contraceptives into Africa is reckless moral adventurism. Ekeocha argues that Gates is importing a thoroughly foreign view of sex and childbirth from the late-modern West into communities where women “LOVE and welcome babies.... I see this [money] buying us misery. I see it buying us unfaithful husbands. I see it buying us streets devoid of the innocent chatter of children. I see it buying us disease and untimely death. I see it buying us a retirement without the tender loving care of our children.” 

Then there’s Bill, who has made it clear he’s more ethical than the rest of us. Mr. Gates has insisted that rich countries should eat only synthetic beef, that we should blot out the sun to optimize our climate, and that we should publicly shame one another for failing to mask up against COVID-19. This is a man who knows what’s good for you. 

I am not for a minute suggesting that being divorced disqualifies you forever from having or imparting moral wisdom. Mistakes and tragedies befall every one of us, and I am the last person who should be judging all divorced people wholesale. But when a major personal endeavor falls apart, most decent people take at least a moment to look inward and ask what went wrong. Certainly they process the experience and its causes before preaching to others about good and evil. That’s what grown-ups do. 

I predict that the Gateses will not do this. I predict they will continue to proselytize their social philosophy all over the world, to the tune of millions of dollars, without an instant's hesitation over whether something in that philosophy might be lacking or self-defeating. And I’m sorry, but the arrogance that this reflects is simply staggering to me. It is the same arrogance that our ruling classes show again and again. When everything they do crashes and burns, they just keep pushing the same ideas on us, day after day, because they know best.  

“The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything,” wrote Nietzsche, is “trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it.” He had a point. Perhaps our self-anointed betters might consider applying this test to their own ways of life, before exporting them forcibly around the globe.