Those who don’t spend much time on social media may not be aware of Mr. Beast, the YouTube alias for 24-year-old Jimmy Donaldson of Greenville, North Carolina. Donaldson has 131 million subscribers just on Youtube, and his latest video, “1,000 blind people see for the first time,” had 80 million views less than a week after being released.
Between ad revenue, products, and endorsements in 2021, he made $54 million. But he was spending $4 million a month to create the elaborate videos and giveaways. In a recent pitch for capital, he valued his operation at $1.5 billion. Not bad for someone who is too young to rent a car in many states.
But not everyone is happy for him. The sharp difference in reactions to Mr. Beast’s latest video are a good window into the controversy around his approach. In the video, Donaldson and his team pay for surgery to restore for 1,000 blind people in countries around the world. In addition, he gives suitcases full of cash, and even a Tesla, to many of those whose sight he restores. After the video, he announced that he is going to give an additional $100,000 to an organization that provides these surgeries.
About a month before, he made a video where he rebuilt homes in Kentucky after storms left many people homeless.
You may be asking yourself: who could possibly have a problem with that? Well, apparently a lot of people, since comments critical of Donaldson were among the top tweets the day he released the blindness video. Many people called his model “performative altruism” and said if he really cared for these people, he wouldn’t try to get money and publicity from it. Multiple comments also said the fact that charity is even necessary shows that the whole system is broken. One of the popular comments along these lines can be seen below:
The USA Today even published a piece on Feb 1 asking, “A YouTuber cured 1,000 blind people for a video. But is it performative altruism?” North Carolina conservative radio personality Pete Kaliner, on the other hand, called for Donaldson to get the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an award given to noteworthy North Carolinians.
Prominent national conservative, A.G. Hamilton, also pushed back on the naysayers.
After two days of controversy, Mr. Beast himself decided to weigh in:
It’s clear that Donaldson is making millions of dollars by making videos of himself helping people. But is this necessarily a bad thing and a sign we need socialism?
The first thing to consider is that many of these people were from impoverished countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. A socialist attempt to redistribute wealth would be unlikely to solve their problems (since there aren’t a lot of resources to redistribute in the first place). North Korea has full “ownership of the means of production” by the government, but people still sadly have to eat grass and live in homes without heat or electric lights.
But even if you only focused on the Americans he helped, there is a long and storied history of “performative altruism” in this country, with the super wealthy and large corporations providing services to the public in exchange for a little publicity (which ultimately helps their businesses succeed).
This can be seen when major corporations build or maintain sports stadiums; examples in North Carolina include the Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers play; and the PNC Arena, where the Carolina Hurricanes play.
Buildings on college campuses, wings of hospitals, performing arts centers, museums, parks, you name it, often bear the name of a wealthy benefactor. The wealthy have been providing much-needed philanthropy to their communities for centuries, with the caveat that their name be slapped on the side of the building. Donaldson, in building his online persona, is largely doing the same.
Is that a bit self-aggrandizing? Didn’t Jesus say that we should give in secret and not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing? Shouldn’t everyone be completely altruistic with their time and resources, giving generously from their surplus? Sure. But the second best thing to the wealthy giving secretly out of pure altruism (which does happen) is doing it to establish their good name. This is far better than them not giving (or curing the blind) at all.
In some Wal-Mart or Target locations, I’ve seen big banners informing all those walking by about the specific little league teams and food banks they sponsor in the area. That’s certainly being done, in part, so people think of the brand favorably. But do the little league teams or the people getting free meals care? Not likely.
And let’s not pretend that when it’s government rather than business being “charitable” that the politicians involved avoid tooting their own horn. The Congressman David Price Farmers Market Pavilion here in Hillsborough seems to suggest otherwise, as do the countless press releases from elected officials making sure people know about the latest ways they are being generous with the public’s money. At least Mr. Beast is spending his own money.
The one major twist I see is that Donaldson is making money by giving it away. But I don’t see a problem with that because the money is coming from people choosing to watch the videos and to buy his products, as well as from companies paying for access to his audience. All of those people are indirectly paying Mr. Beast to be charitable with their money. And they’re also paying him to make the videos so they can feel good watching them. It’s hard to find a loser in that exchange.