February 24, 2004
Purge the PIRGs
of Ralph Nader online has produced an interesting eddy in its wake, namely an
equally passionate attack on Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which
Nader played a role in founding.
I dont actually
map my feelings about PIRGs onto Nader, though their mutual connection doesnt
help me get warm and fuzzy about either of them. In many ways, I object more
fundamentally to PIRGs. Theyre a scam.
Jane Galt, I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser for a PIRG one
summer in the early 1980s. I only lasted about three weeks before the toxic
combination of viciously exploitative labor practices and a recognition of the
organizations total lack of concern for political commitment completely
alienated me. If you pounded the pavement all evening but came in just shy of
quota, you didnt get paid at all for your work. The people running the
canvassing operation had zero interest in the issues or the ideas: they were
in manner or functioning little different than the boss of a sweatshop factory
floor. Keep the money rolling in and send it along to the state organization:
that was the sole priority. The spiel we were told to memorize was a frankly
deceptive presentation of the organization and its activities. PIRGs have a
long habit of parasitically attaching themselves to legislation and claiming
credit for itand only if they deem it something fuzzy and blandly liberal
enough that it is likely to raise more money or garner good publicity. Theres
no coherent agenda beyond that, and never has been.
My antipathy deepened
when a PIRG came rolling into town at Wesleyan University, when I was an undergraduate,
seeking an automatic fee attached to the tuition bill. The whole presentation
was slimy both in content and style. First, they dangled an internship in front
of student officers, and then they shifted abruptly to left-baiting and bullying
when anyone (a class of people that most definitely included me at that point)
asked why on earth a PIRG should get an automated chunk of money every year
when no other student group had the privilegea chunk of money which would
be completely non-transparently spent, moreover. As a magnaminous gesture, they
finally offered a system where you could come and get a refund of your PIRG
money if you were willing to show up at a basement office during a one-day window
once every academic year and ask for it. This is all standard for PIRGs then
and now: they push for mandatory fees, and accept as a fall-back an opt-out.
Its not just
that PIRGs are sleazy in their fund-raising and opportunism. Reading Jane Galts
essay, I wonder a bit at whether they havent played a subtle but important
role over two decades in disillusioning young liberals and leftists and driving
them rightward as a result.
Based on my own experience and the experience of people close to me, Id say that liberal nonprofits in general are usually not what they seem on the outside, or at least, rarely apply their outward convictions to internal matters. They often have unfair, exploitative or even discriminatory labor practices. Theyre often intensely hierarchical, non-democratic and non-transparent in their internal organization. But PIRGs are in a class of their own. At least with something like the ACLU or Amnesty International, whatever their internal cultures are like, they stand for something consistent politically and socially. PIRGs dont even have that.