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Don't Follow The Money
Money alone does not explain harmful systems.
Imagine if abolitionists said "you know, they're making money off this slavery thing," and then never did any further thinking about racism or Civil Rights.
This is how I feel when people say “follow the money.”
On the issue of circumcision, I will frequently hear activists say we should “follow the money” or suggest that money alone can explain why people continue to cut children’s genitals. This explanation could not be more empty.
“Follow the money” functions as a thought-terminating cliche so that people do not have to think further about the issue. I have never seen someone who said “follow the money” actually follow the money and arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue.
If activists took this saying seriously, they would be spending hours pouring over the financials of medical organizations. Many of the medical organizations involved in circumcision are set up as non-profits. You can download their filings with the IRS online. After looking over the financials myself, I can report: they are indeed making money. Shocking, I know.
Have we cracked the case? Not in the slightest. If you “follow the money” on this issue, you will arrive at roughly the same understanding of slavery you would have had as an abolitionist in the 1800s tracking the financials of the slave trade. “Wow, turns out they’re making money on this.” Yup. Does knowing this solve the issue? Would it have solved any historical injustice?
An activist solely focused on money would have missed obvious truths evident to anyone looking at the bigger picture. Yes, they are making money on slavery - but who are they enslaving? Isn’t the choice to enslave only one group of people significant? On the issue of circumcision, we might say the same. Yes, they are making money on genital cutting - but who are they cutting? Isn’t the fact that they are only cutting one group significant? To an abolitionist looking at the bigger picture, it would be obvious that a racial justice movement was needed. To anyone looking at the bigger picture of genital cutting, it is obvious that a Children’s Justice movement is needed.
What did help historical injustices was theory. The facts alone provide no inherent interpretation or understanding. Social change begins with an idea. Our early abolitionists would have been far more effective if instead of pouring over financial statements, they were to develop ideas like the concept of Civil Rights or systemic racism. Those ideas are relatively modern. Can you imagine the progress abolitionists might have made if they had popularized those in the 1800s?
Instead, the theory the abolitionist movement was most influenced by was Christianity. One could argue both the success and failures of the movement were due to the choice to base their movement in this idea, rather than another. In Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader, there are long debates over whether or not Biblical passages support or condone slavery. Given that the Bible has specific rules on how a master should treat a slave, modern audiences might suggest a different ideological approach. The choice to frame this debate Biblically rather than in another theory is far more significant than the realization that “they’re making money off this.”
While money is not useful for understanding “why” what money is useful for is understanding who and how. If an abolitionist wanted to shut down certain slave traders, knowing how that system worked and who was paying them might be useful. Likewise, if a modern activist wanted to change the medical system, knowing how that system works and who is involved would also be useful. Following the money is useful for understanding how a system works, but “follow the money” alone does not explain the why of a system. For that, you need theory.
P.S. Feel free to prove me wrong. As I mentioned, you can download the financials to most of the organizations activists talk about it. If you find something significant, write it up, share it, and we’ll talk about it.