A couple years back I wrote a column containing some mildly negative comments about Microsoft, which turned out to be untrue. It got interesting after I posted a standard retraction that would receive the third strongest response to anything I’ve yet published. People wanted to know how Microsoft had pressured me, or what my sell-out price had been. I’m sad to confess those cheap screws never offered me a penny. My readers were quick and vehement in telling me how awful and evil the Redmond Empire was.
I was reminded of this a few weeks back when I listened to Gates Foundation Executive Sally Stansfield’s report at Pop!Tech on the impressive effort of the Gates Foundation in Africa to combat disease and health-related suffering among some of the world’s most overlooked citizens. About a week earlier, I had read an eye-opening series in the New York Times on Bill and Melinda Gates' personal meetings with South African sex workers to educate them on AIDS prevention and medicine. The Foundation, I am told, has invested more money to fight infectious diseases than has the U.S. or any other country.
I thought Stansfield was informative, businesslike, candid and memorable as she described the enormous problems of diseases that have no borders, killing agnostically, regardless of race, creed, age, income or national origin. I was a bit surprised when a poll of the Pop!Tech audience did not rate Stansfield among the highest of speakers.
Why is there not more praise for Gates in this effort?
The answer is simple—he is Bill Gates. In the techno-centric neighborhoods where I hang out, anything Gatesean is held to extreme levels of suspicion. This Foundation, the thinking goes, must be a ruse to divert attention from competitive shenanigans or Windows patches. Years ago, when Gates was criticized for un-charitable attitudes, he declared he would eventually set up just this sort of foundation. My friend Richard Brandt recollects that when he researched Gates for a BusinessWeek cover story years back, he discovered that Gates mother was highly respected for her abundant charitable works while she was raising young Bill. But the Foundation continues to be viewed as a ruse, and if it is actually doing any good, it must be to Melinda's credit and not Bill.
Why is the Foundation doing what it does?
Personally, I don’t care. The facts indicate their efforts lessen human suffering. A century from today the world will little note nor really care if the Gates fortune was aggregated from quirky software and monopolistic leanings. No one seems to care today that the Rockefeller Foundation was begun on a fortune amassed by a mogul who once kidnapped and held Vaseline’s inventor until he sold his patent to the robber baron. Andrew Carnegie was no great music lover and he certainly didn’t make his fortune working the counter of a NYC Deli named for him. Henry Ford’s foundation has paid to educate thousands of impoverished American minorities who probably don’t care or even know the antipathy he demonstrated toward Jews or his sympathy for Hitler’s efforts.
A century from now, the Gates Foundation will be known for the human suffering it battled and hopefully defeated. Some of today’s most insidious killers may be as non-existent as yesterday’s botulism or bubonic plague.