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Peter Buffett On The Power—And Limits—Of Art And Money

The protest singer, philanthropist, and son of the world’s third-richest man wants to help you to do the most good with what you’ve got

Peter Buffett. Photo by Steffan Thalemann.

As the son of the world’s once-richest man (at the moment, Warren ranks number three), Peter Buffett has spent a lifetime with access to nearly limitless resources, though due to his father’s predilection for living modestly in Omaha, Nebraska, it wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he knew it.

For much of his career, Buffett has recorded and written music for commercials, film, television, and theater. Recently, he released a cover of Joni Mitchell’s protest song “Woodstock,” just one of his forays into political art, which include the 2009 song “Blood Into Gold,” created with rapper Akon. But for about 10 years now, Buffett has also served with his wife Jennifer as co-president of the NoVo Foundation, working to advance the rights of women and girls, indigenous communities, and other vulnerable populations. The couple was twice named by Barron’s as two of the world’s most effective philanthropists.

GOOD spoke to Buffett about resistance in the time of Trump, his advice for those new to donating their funds or talents, and whether music or philanthropy are enough to make real progress in the modern world.

Was the Buffett household really into music?

My mother said I sang before I talked, which sounds very sweet, and maybe it’s true—she said it was “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” so she could name the tune. I didn’t think I’d be a professional musician when I was a kid, but I had kind of a natural instinct to go over to the piano and play around. Now that I’m older, I’m writing the songs that I was most attracted to when I was young.

So you were always drawn to protest music? Why this old song, and why now?

The foundation work I’m doing has shown me the ugly part of the world in a lot of ways, whether it’s people living abroad in terrible conditions essentially created by corporate capitalism, or right here at home. So it’s not really surprising to me that I would start to write much more pointed songs about what I’ve seen. A few years ago, I started listening to my records again and put on the Crosby, Stills and Nash album with their version of “Woodstock” and started thinking, “This is my life.” At one time, I lived 20 minutes away from Woodstock in New York, and the song is all about living in a time of change. Then the times started to match the song even more than when I first thought about covering it.

In the video, there are so many callbacks to previous resistance movements—the Berlin Wall crashes down while students stare at their phones. Are you saying we were better at protest in the past, or that we have better tools to protest now?

It wasn’t until we finished the video that I realized, “Oh, I’m actually encouraging kids to leave their class and go into the street.” That may not be the best thing, but it is on some level. I do think there are better tools today; after Standing Rock or even thinking back to the Arab Spring, it’s clearly easier to learn about who needs help, where to go, and how to send support.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The danger of technology is thinking that if you watch something or talk about something, you’re doing something about it.[/quote]

But at the same time, there really isn’t anything more effective for oneself than the feeling of actually doing something. If we’re not out having those sensory, physical feelings of action—good or bad, pushing against or moving toward a different direction—we’ll forget what that feels like. That’s the danger of technology: thinking that if you watch something or talk about something, you’re doing something about it.

So, in past resistance movements, there wasn’t any other way. Now we can sit inside and learn quite a bit, and be dismayed, but ultimately, getting out there in some form is critical. I wouldn’t say I’m for or against any particular kind of resistance, but if someone’s going to hit you, you put up your arm.

You’re obviously very known for your philanthropy, and you’ve had experience in actual protest as well as resisting through your art. So I’m curious if you have any insight about the most effective way to do good or make a statement.

That is completely dependent on what you yourself can do and are best at. So, if you have a lot of money, give it away, and think about where you’re giving it away. Think about something you’re connected to in your community, or an experience you had. I’m sure the highest funders to causes fighting some form of cancer are people who have had it or know people who have had it, right? In that realm, there’s a directive to release the money. At the foundation, I joke that our tagline is, “We’re putting money out of its misery”—we’re setting it free to do good things in the world.

But if you have expertise, whether as an artist, or really anything, bring that. If you’re a lawyer, you can say, “I’ll do some pro bono cases to help somebody in my community get their immigration papers,” or whatever it might be. That has real value—and you don’t have to be a lawyer. You can be a cook. And actual marching matters, just like calling your Congresspeople matters. If that’s what you can give, your time and your body to a march or a phone call, it’s valuable.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I wouldn’t say I’m for or against any particular kind of resistance, but if someone’s going to hit you, you put up your arm.[/quote]

I’m from Omaha, so I’m very familiar with your family. Since you grew up not even really being aware of how much money your father had, I’m sure your experience is similar to pretty much anybody else’s on the planet, and you had to work to figure out what to do when you were just getting started. Any advice?

I grew up with parents who were very civil rights-minded and my mom was involved in various issues in (the historically African American area of) North Omaha. When I was a kid, Martin Luther King was someone to look up to, and civil rights and social justice and fairness were just front and center in the way my parents thought about things. It was helpful, because I grew up in that soup, and the injustices I saw and the history I learned got me really devoted to telling certain stories and using my art as activism.

Then when my dad did what I call the “big bang”—he gave us $10 million in 2000 and then $1 billion six years later to use for philanthropic causes—my wife Jennifer and I had to step back and say, “Okay, what do we think about the world? How do we think about ourselves in the world? How do we think money should be deployed?” We had to hire people and really step back.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I joke that our tagline is, ‘We’re putting money out of its misery’—we’re setting it free to do good things in the world.[/quote]

I’d say we approached the world from what I would call a “colonial consciousness” frame. A certain segment of people sort of overran the rest of the world. And that’s an oversimplification, of course, but there’s a trans-national global capitalist machine that is extracting too much and dumping too much, and forgetting about what’s in between—which is people—and instead slicing everything up into markets. So we decided there is too much domination and exploitation and oppression and asked, how do we effectively change consciousness?

We figured the place to start was with ourselves, and getting clear in our own personal lives and our relationship so we could study which levers are the most effective to pull to see change happen. It took a while for this to be obvious, but we had to go to the people who are most adversely affected by the current structure. I’ve had this wonderful, privileged, lucky life in so many ways, so I shouldn’t be the one saying, “Here’s how to solve the problem.” The people who are experiencing it should say that. The first thing you do is get really humble, and listen, and learn.

So what do you think we need to do to survive the next four years?

Start in the community you’re in, with the things you care about. And that’s whether you want just the next four years to be better—or until you’re off the planet. If you hold a key to relieve someone else’s stress or pain, you can do it across the globe.

But the truth is, in the coming decades, I think we’ll return to what our species is used to—which is being in smaller groups. Only in the past couple of centuries have things gotten so distorted. It’s so confusing right now because we’re waking up to the fact that the structures and systems in place are not working for our humanity—or our souls.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]There’s a machine that is extracting too much and dumping too much, and forgetting about what’s in between—which is people.[/quote]

I think that’s why we are addicted to various things, whether it’s literally opioids or pharmaceuticals, or the media. People feel empty, and they’re looking for something meaningful. Over the next four years in particular, but also in general, we have to really love our neighbors as ourselves. Even if you don’t have religious conviction, the basic tenets are exactly right: Be kind to each other. Love your neighbor. Do the simple things that will knit your community together. Even saying hello to the person behind the counter when you’re checking out.

Maybe it sounds silly, but we need a lot more of that in every way, so people feel like they’re part of some family, as opposed to being on their own, fighting against a big, faceless system.

Ever since Meryl Streep gave her speech about empathy, I’ve been wondering—is the solution that easy?

I will say a very controversial thing, because I agree that empathy as it’s described is feeling someone’s experience and having a valid response and connection to it. But at the same time, it’s tricky, because you can never know somebody else’s experience.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]You can never know somebody else’s experience.[/quote]

The best example of this is you can have a few siblings, grow up in the same family, and see things entirely differently, or say, “Well, that didn’t happen when we were eight,” and the other one will say, “Well, it sure did to me.”

So, empathy is important, and yet, we have to respect the fact that we can’t ever fully have it. Remember that everybody’s got a story, and that’s what deserves the most respect: You can’t know what somebody else is walking in with, but you still need to fight for them.

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