What Abigail Disney Doesn’t Know about Conservative Philanthropy

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Abigail Disney is a rebel. At the age of 59, she wants you to know that she has finally gotten out from under the thumb of her oppressive parents, heirs to the Disney media and entertainment empire. She is ready to forge her own path.

In an extensive profile by Sheelah Kolhatkar published in The New Yorker last week, Disney talks about her efforts to combat income inequality by lobbying for the rich to pay more taxes and for corporations (including the one founded by her grandfather) to pay their employees more. She is one of the major funders and leaders of a group called the Patriotic Millionaires, wealthy liberals who are interested in redistributing their own and other people’s wealth. None of this will sound particularly original to anyone who has been following the efforts of Warren Buffett or the Ford Foundation, but Disney seems to think her cliché-ridden proclamations are treading new ground. “I always keep coming back to the idea that you just keep investing in the future,” she boldly told Kolhatkar.

Not even those, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who spend more of their time on actually helping poor people can compete with the kind of crusade she is on. When Kolhatkar asks her about the Giving Pledge (whereby the wealthy promise to contribute most of their money to charity), she quickly dismisses it: “Frankly, if you’re a billionaire and only want to give away half of your fortune, something is wrong with you.”

What’s interesting about the article, though, is Disney’s description of her upbringing. From the profile:

“My mother was Fox News before there was Fox News,” she said. When I asked Disney about her own politics, she said, “I really don’t know why I care about this. I really shouldn’t, given my upbringing. There is no reason why I should give a sh** about poor people.”

I don’t know whether Disney’s description is accurate, but if she believes that conservative people by definition do not care about the poor, she could use a serious lesson in American philanthropy. As The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted in 2012, “the eight states that ranked highest voted for John McCain in the last presidential contest while the seven lowest-ranking states supported Barack Obama.” Disney would no doubt be shocked and horrified to find that Utah’s residents top the list of givers, donating about 6.6 percent of their adjusted gross income, with Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia rounding out the top five.

Which is not surprising, given how closely tied religion is to philanthropic giving. According to the World Economic Forum, “religious Americans volunteer more, give more and give more often, not only to religious but secular causes as well. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving.”

Disney doesn’t mention being raised with any kind of faith, but some of the country’s most generous millionaires and billionaires credit their religious beliefs when asked about their giving. Take the late William E. Simon, whose Catholic faith led him to give money not only to Catholic organizations but also to shelters for abused women and children and to athletic facilities for children.

Starting in the 1970s, he volunteered at Covenant House, a shelter for runaway teenagers in New York, and took his children along. When he put his seven children on the board of his foundation he required that each of them spend at least 150 hours a year volunteering in the community. It’s the kind of lesson that Disney could have benefited from. Instead, as an undergraduate at Yale, she was swept up in leftist movements on campus, she tells Kolhatkar, who reports that

a woman gave her a T-shirt featuring Che Guevara and the words “Viva Los Sandinistas,” the Nicaraguan socialist political party that the U.S. had tried to overthrow by backing the right-wing Contras, leading to a decade of civil war in Nicaragua. [Disney] wore it constantly. “By the time I graduated from college, I understood that Ronald Reagan was not a good person,” she said. “And my parents worshipped the ground he walked on, so that became a very painful thing.”

Again, we are given only the word of Disney regarding her parents’ beliefs. Her father died in 2009, and her mother in 2012, after a bout with Alzheimer’s. But there is reason to wonder whether this woman is being completely honest. According to its website, the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, which was founded in 1969, makes “holistic investments to support vulnerable populations who face a myriad of social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental inequities in their lives and communities.” The foundation supports the American Civil Liberties Union, the Innocence Project, and the Environmental Defense Fund. It’s possible that Disney’s parents simply didn’t care where their philanthropic dollars were spent or that the foundation has been hijacked by liberals since their death. But if I were one of the famed fact-checkers at The New Yorker, I’d dig a little deeper. Her talents, though, like those of her grandfather before her, may lie in the world of fiction.

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