So in case you missed it, last week Stephen Harper declined
to meet with Bono to discuss aid for Africa. Said Harper,
"Meeting celebrities isn't my shtick. That was the shtick of the previous guy."
The natural reaction is to take Harper literally and to point out all the occasions when Harper has
met with celebrities, noting his hypocrisy. And indeed, many bloggers have already done so
. But I think we can gain more insight by stepping back a little and considering what Harper was really saying and how it wasn't as incoherent as it sounds when taken at face value.
If you're born into the developed world these days, into reasonably fortunate circumstances, you can't help but repeatedly come face to face with the dichotomy between your own success and comfort, and the struggle and hardship of so many others. Within our own country we have the desperately poor, the mentally ill, people addicted to one thing or another, and people who just don't fit in for whatever reason. Outside our borders there is a whole other level of hardship, in countries wracked by war, famine, drought, flooding, disease and on and on.
Broadening our view further, it is not just people who are suffering. From aquariums to factory farms, to disappearing habitat to poaching, the other animals that share this planet with us are suffering greatly as well, and at our hands. And not just other animals, the natural environment itself faces clearcutting, overfishing of oceans, draining of rivers, lakes and water tables, and of course a dramatic change in climate as well, again all at our hands.
Faced with the divide between their own good fortune and the ocean of hardship that good fortune floats upon, people have different reactions. A precious few are willing to give up most of their own good fortune, devoting all of their energy and resources to helping those less fortunate. Others simply attempt to ignore facing the divide too closely, more willing and able to empathize with the fate of Paris Hilton than with Aids sufferers in Africa. Most people just try to maintain an uneasy balance, pursuing their own pleasure and comfort but taking some measures to help others - whether volunteering at a local shelter, donating money to charity, becoming a vegetarian, selling their car and relying on transit or whatever.
But there is one group which, unable to simply ignore the problems of the weak and the suffering, instead feels compelled to even deny the existence of this suffering, or at least to deny any personal responsibility for or need for involvement with the situation. Ironically, it is these people you will see invoking the concept of personal responsibility as a means of arguing that those who are poor are to blame for their own predicament and therefore don't deserve any assistance. These are the people who, when faced with the suffering of the other creatures on earth, take refuge in an ideology which says that humans were created apart and in dominion over the other animals, of which we are supposedly not one. And when the scientific evidence suggests that we are just another animal, this evidence will be ignored. These are the people who endorse an economic theory that says trying to help the poor will do no good. For example, minimum wage laws will only hurt the poor, and if the evidence suggests that these laws actually work, that evidence can be ignored too. And when science suggests that our comfortable lifestyle is damaging the planet, they lash out at the scientists who are assumed to only want fame or grant money, at the environmentalists who want to destroy the economy for unstated reasons, and at the science itself, which is, of course, all wrong.
What these people are doing is building a wall between themselves and the reality of their own, our own, collective responsibility for what happens on the planet, and for the suffering and hardship that exists here. Every creationist theory, every junkscience.com site, every attack on Rachel Carson, every element of blind faith in neoclassical economics, every trickledown argument, every attempt to statistically downplay the reality of poverty, every statement that lays all the blame for people's suffering on those who suffer - every one of these is a plank in that wall.
So what, or who, is the greatest threat to those who have gone down the road of walling themselves off in this manner? Clearly, it is those who seek to break through that wall to make people see that they can and should take action. That if they feel guilty about their hoard of material possessions then maybe there is a reason for that. So the wall builders will attack anyone who seeks to take this task on. Why? - because those people are attacking them!
So we hear endless attacks on David Suzuki, and the fuel used in his bus, we get a never-ending barrage of incoherent insults directed at Al Gore, and Michael Moore and Bono and so on.
Normally, you might ask yourself: given two aging rock stars, one who keeps to himself, spending away his health and wealth on alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, and one who devotes a huge amount of his time to raising money and raising awareness for some of the most downtrodden people in the world, why on earth is it the latter rock star who comes in for an endless round of insults and snide remarks and accusations of hypocrisy and criticism. But the answer is clear, by trying to break down the wall of denial that surrounds these people, the activist rock star is attacking their world view, attacking the very intellectual foundations that allow them to function without being overcome by guilt or anger, attacking the wall that allows them not to care - so it is only natural they fight back with everything they have, even if they don't know quite why they are doing it.
Which brings us back to our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Heading a government that cuts taxes for the wealthy and brings in a broad range of tax deductions for the comfortable middle class, but does precious little to help the poor, natives, gays, women, addicts or any other group which faces a disadvantage in our society, we know where he stands. When he says that 'meeting celebrities isn't my shtick' we know that what he really means is that meeting people who care about the poor and the suffering - and who want him to care too - is not his shtick, because at root, it is caring itself that is not his shtick. Taking his words for what they really meant rather than literally, it is not quite so easy to find glaring counterexamples.