Over the break, I read an article that raises a point seldom mentioned today. Our country’s former Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, was in a bit of hot water for suggesting that sportsmen who get involved in charitable or community work are merely cynically promoting themselves or their sport.
The irony is so thick you’d need a diamond saw to cut it. About the only thing that would be more cynical than such behaviour is Costello’s accusation itself, and the associated implication that it is therefore morally questionable. “There is a big difference between celebrity and philanthropy,” Costello commented, as though reminding all us mere mortals of an obvious fact.
To hell with that. It is hardly obvious, and to my mind the assumption that there is such a necessary difference is itself the very root of the problem. Using even — especially — the broadest meanings of the terms celebrity and philanthropy, we used to have an expression for the relationship that should exist between them. We called it noblesse oblige. I don’t mean to sound like a nostalgic fool who believes that yesterday’s celebrities were somehow better people than today’s; by all accounts they weren’t. Noblesse oblige simply means a situation where those with privilege are considered to have an obligation to be responsible with it.
Now, the very nature of privilege of course makes this situation relatively rare. Yet it appears to be eminently desirable — and the way to bring it about is to make fulfilling such an obligation rewarding, as it is in the case of footballers who represent charities, or run school clinics, and as a bonus improve the brand of the AFL and their club. Costello’s cynical attitude, in this case sadly representative of the prevailing one across most of the political spectrum, is counterproductive at best and completely misses several points.
I have more to say on the topic of noblesse oblige. It says much of our society that I had no idea the expression existed until, by chance, I read an interview with John Armstrong on the subject. I think I’ve said enough to be going on with, though, so I’ll leave it here for now.