Thursday, March 17, 2011

He Doesn't Get It.

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.


  1. I've heard the expression before but never really thought about what it meant or tried translating it to modern circumstances.

    I have to admit I often feel the same way about charity done publicly by public figures. And I'll be frank - some of it really is just for appearance' sake. A certain cinema chain I know has just gone officially "green", but doesn't recycle. It also collects donations for a cancer charity, but its competitor also donates to the same charity, and it measures its donations against theirs, like it's a contest that can be won.

    But people - like footy players - are different from corporations. You make a great point, and you just exploded some of my cynicism. Good work, fella.

  2. That is the danger of what I was suggesting — in trying to make philanthropy attractive, it is easy to make apparent philanthropy just as attractive, and of course the appearance of something is usually easier than the real thing. That's why we need to call corporations like the cinema chain you mentioned on their hypocrisy. Perhaps some form of official standards and certification before an organisation can legitimately call itself "green", to use your example, is in order.

  3. There are official standards for many of these things, that's why we have Fair Trade Certification and so forth, but corporations are really frickin' sneaky about these things.

    Cadbury, for instance, made a deal where they're allowed to use the fair trade stamp even though they're only 50% fair trade.

    In my example, what that cinema chain has actually done is switched to "green" cleaning products. It can honestly say that without mentioning the recycling.

  4. If they're able to "make a deal" of any sort, then the certification system isn't fair. Personally I'm against any sort of NGO taking responsibility here, as they can be bought, and (as we see with the "organic" label) there are so many competing certifying organisations and the one with the loosest standards is going to be the most successful. An accountable government standards board would be a lot more trustworthy. And a decent accountable standards board would take a cinema chain to court if it claimed to be completely "green" on the basis of its cleaning products alone. Even if the chain won the legal case, the publicity would be damaging, and there lies the incentive for it not to be sneaky.