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Thursday, January 31, 2013

What to make of David Suzuki?


I don’t like David Suzuki. That’s been the case for many years now, ever since I showed up at a book-signing in Victoria to interview him and discovered that the man I had thought of as a kind, wise environmentalist was in fact an obnoxious, rude guy who made no attempt to hide his contempt of the fans gazing at him all fawn-eyed and adoring.
I’ve generally kept my opinion of him to myself, however, for fear of seeming un-Canadian. I don’t know what the process is for becoming a beloved Canadian icon, but have long recognized that once someone achieves that status, any Canadian who dares to say otherwise is really in for it.
But a story this week from the Sun Media chain was just too good for me to pass up. The story featured a series of emails from John Abbott College in Quebec about Suzuki receiving more than $40,000 in fees and expenses for a speaking engagement at the college in October. 
Better still, the emails - obtained through a Freedom of Information request - featured a juicy little bit about Suzuki requesting that the college also provide attractively dressed female college students to walk alongside him and ward off the advances of all those adoring fans he can’t stand. (The college now says Suzuki made no such request, although the email exchange seems pretty clear. But here's the viewpoint of Halifax Chronicle Herald journalist Paul McLeod, who thinks SunMedia went too far with its allegations. )
I posted the story on Facebook and mentioned the long-ago book signing as my reason for being a bit gleeful at seeing Suzuki in the muck.  Within minutes, dozens of people had posted comments. Within an hour, there were almost 50 comments and 20 “shares” of my link to the story. By this morning, the comments were up to 62 and there’d been 26 shares.
And the people writing the comments were MAD: Mad at Suzuki for being rude and horrible to them at some point as well; mad at me; mad at Sun Media; mad at the Conservatives (not sure how they got dragged into the debate); mad at anyone saying mean things about a man who’d done such great things for environmental awareness.
“WOW! You hit a hotspot here!” noted one Facebook friend.  Clearly.  There was a lot of passion in people’s comments, whether out of love for Suzuki and the work he has done or because others also had lingering feelings of bitter betrayal after being treated roughly and rudely by him.
Ultimately, the heated exchange brings to mind that old saw about whether you can hate the sin but love the sinner. Can we admire Suzuki’s work while also acknowledging that at times he's an arrogant, unpleasant jerk?
I’d guess that all of us have done things in our lives that we’re not proud of. So I’m always pretty careful to avoid assessing the total sum of a person based on the dumb decisions or big mistakes they’ve made.
I think it’s possible to make good presidential decisions while also being a pathetic womanizer, or to be an amazing athlete even while lying blatantly over a very long time about your use of performance-enhancing drugs. You can’t take the measure of a person’s contribution to this world solely by looking at their worst errors in judgment.
That said, there are obviously some acts that tend to knock you right out of everybody’s good books forever – pedophilia, violence against your spouse or children, planning someone’s murder, ripping off vulnerable people or charities, racism. Personally, I find hypocrisy very difficult to forgive as well, which is why I now count as unredeemable fallen stars like Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and a long list of two-faced pseudo-Christians in the U.S. who foment hatred and judgment while behaving loathsomely in private.
With David Suzuki, that’s a harder call to make. The stories of his rough treatment of people are numerous enough that we can conclude he’s got a real capacity to be a rude, arrogant bastard. But hey, the world is full of guys like that, and mostly I don’t waste a thought on them.
So why does Suzuki’s bad behaviour evoke such passion – in me and all the people on that Facebook thread?
One problem is that he just SEEMS so amiable and kind when we see him on TV that we come to believe that it’s true - that we “know” the man. Then we meet him in person, witness him treating us or his fans rudely, and feel an astonished sense of betrayal that he isn’t who we thought he was.
For others – people who haven’t met him yet, I suspect - Suzuki’s personal “brand” is so synonymous with being a responsible, caring and aware citizen of the natural world that any attack on the man is seen as an attack on environmentalism.  
In this particular case, there was also the fact that Suzuki’s college-girl demands and enormous speaking fees were played up heavily by a controversial media network that’s more or less the Fox News of Canada. It’s a muck-raking, biased network that responsible, caring and aware citizens of the natural world love to hate.
At the end of the day, the story has confirmed rather than changed my opinion of Suzuki.  That he might want pretty young women to walk alongside him to hold all those annoying fans at bay is not much of a surprise to me, because I witnessed his arrogance in Tanner’s Books many years ago and know that arrogant men see themselves as outside the rules that govern the rest of us.
I do feel for the people who are having their rose-coloured glasses torn away for the first time, though.  I remember how that felt.
As for the enormous speaking fees and the fact that Suzuki did indeed get that phalanx of girl bodyguards he requested, that reflects most poorly on the Quebec public college that agreed to those demands. What were they thinking? What truly good works at the college might that $40,000 fee have funded?
That college administrators didn’t hesitate in providing Suzuki with attractively dressed female students also gives the lie to decades of big talk about not objectifying women. Our academic institutions have often led that conversation, and it’s very disappointing to see that the commitment to respectful treatment of women lasts only until a coveted speaker makes a sexist demand.
However, I can separate the personal from the professional. I still love the environment and those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle. I’m thankful for the work of the David Suzuki Foundation and Suzuki himself. I will not let my personal feelings for Suzuki detract from my appreciation of his work.
But I’ll also give my instincts a quiet little high-five for being right all those years ago, when I first caught a glimpse of a very different man underneath that genial smile. 

29 comments:

Bharat said...

Jody:

I have no strong opinions about Suzuki as a person, in fact, I try not to judge people I haven't met or interacted with. His work has been great, and that's all one needs to care about in the absence of, as you said violence or harrasment. . That being said, it's a bit hilarious that you did not mention the source of the story: Ezra Levant is one of the most discredited excuses for journalist you can find. He's an ex tobacco lobbyist, climate denier and founder of an oil astroturf group "ethical oil". He is also been previously convicted for defamation. Was there any point in debating this obvious smear job? Clearly, there's a meme in conservative circles to smear environmental icons with thinly sourced and gossip like innuendo. We should not participate in this kind of "journalism"

Earson Gibson said...

Bharat, while I agree that Levant is everything that you say, and that his piece does contain gossip and innuendo, the e-mails he procured through a Freedom of Information request speak for themselves. While Levant's spin is biased, the sources are legitimate. The only reason we're hearing it from Levant and not a more credible source is that nobody wants to know that the kindly, gentle old man we all know from watching The Nature of Things is actually a huge jerk in real life. So kind of like how we can distinguish between Suzuki's bad attitude and his great work, we can also distinguish between Levant's bad journalism and the legitimate sources he digs up.

Ian Lidster said...

Scratch a tin god and find a fallen idol. Honestly and succinctly stated, Jody and a worthy validation of what you stated initially. I think with many people such stories lead to disappointment more than anything else. And I don't think personalities should ever trump principles. I mean, Paul Watson is also an arrogant asshold much of the time, but I cannot help but laud the work he does. But, I suspect he might be a huge jerk in person. Years ago I had a conversatin with Bob Hunter in which he discussed vis Greenpeace how it was sometimes a challenge to not waver from party line. I also found him, by the way, very likeable.

Terry Glavin said...

Good for you, Jody.

A couple of small clarifications.

About the attractively-dressed females bit: If you read the emails closely it's clear that rather than merely wanting a couple of babes to escort him around the place, the request was for security guards that didn't have that whole security-guard thing going on about them. A degree of sexism there, even, but not of the order of lechery Levant presented.

Also the enormity of the speakers' fee - it looks wholly obscene, but in all likelihood the money, if not all then a part, was for his foundation. That's one of the ways the Suzuki Foundation raises money.

Anyway. . .your experience with him is of a piece with quite a few encounters I've witnessed or heard about directly from people I trust. I've also knocked heads with Suzuki, publicly, more than once; his foundation co-published two of my books and I've found that he is by no means the intellectual and moral giant of his public persona. But then again last year I spent an evening with him among friends in Toronto and he was sweet as pie.

The points you make are spot-on and necessary, and they speak to the slavishness of the "celebrity culture" that tends to afflict the bien-pensant and stylishly correct, a broad caste of bourgeois society that tends to be cluttered with bores who imagine themselves to be "environmentalists," and thus without any stain of sin.

Second reason for my note here: Just to say you rock. I've followed your work for years and I've always held a tremendous admiration for you. All the best in your latest endeavours and so on.

Affectionately,
- Terry Glavin

Marty Hykin said...

Hard to stay out of this one Jody. Probably the biggest reason I am a fan of your writing and of you personally is that you tend to keep things personal, to insert your personal feelings or to write describing the travails of individuals, not of collectivities or classes of people. I don't know if that is a conscious choice on your part but , for me, it is very effective in getting me out of my head and into my heart, so to speak. And OK, Suzuki is a boor and, as of this week, an old lech as well. OK? Now what? I was going to write about the time I saw the Dalai Lama swat a mosquito - the hypocrisy of the man! - but I don't think I have time to handle the kind of push back that you got. I think you crossed the border with your FB post. Not irredeemably, of course. It would have been much more to the point if you had dwelled more on the intricacies of your personal reaction, the confirmation you felt etc, rather than handing it over so credibly to Levant's hatchet job. "Aid and comfort to the enemy", is the term which comes to mind. I can give you a host of anecdotes about a number of major celebrities - stories which arose in the course of my own personal experiences with them at social events, at work with them, and in various other settings. I know things about them which are most unflattering. Henry Kissinger, Harrison Ford, Norman Mailer, US treasury secretary, Attorney General, various Hollywood stars etc etc. For example there was the time H.K. was heartlessly, unspeakably, treacherously rude to a close relative of mine as he lay dying. How much does this tidbit of information outweigh the rest of his behaviour in his life, in our world? His carpet-bombing of Cambodia for example. By which measure shall we judge the man? What satisfaction could I get out of saying "Aha! You see? He really is an S.O.B. because of how he treated Uncle . . . " Or can we let the Cambodia exercise speak for itself? If Levant had the brains, the intellect, and the data to engage with the substance of Suzuki's work I'd be happy to consider his ideas and to agree or disagree - but I really can't get much joy over his kind of ad hominem attack, even against my enemies - (much as I'd like to suck up all the joy that I can find in this stingy world. ) The school's refutation of Levant's malicious version is at least as convincing as anything else I have read in this thread and I won't even bother to discuss those details further - because I just don't know a damned thing about it.

Anyway - good for you for being a shit disturber of the best kind.

Marty

deeby said...

Hi Jody,

Bill Tieleman, Alexandra Morton and others have had similar experiences:

http://billtieleman.blogspot.ca/search?q=Suzuki

Like you point out, someone can be a great environmentalist, yet still be a jerk. His quiet demeanor on Nature of Things probably masks that from those who haven't met him.

Cheers...

said...

In contrast to your fears about speaking ill of dear David lest you be perceived as unpatriotic, here in the canola belt of Manitoba, I fear saying a good word about the man. There is no one Manitoba farmers love to hate more.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "a muck-raking, biased network that responsible, caring and aware citizens of the natural world love to hate" The Times Communist, a left wing propoganda rag as biased as most main stream media who would rather worship mother earth than accept the truth about their egotistical heroes.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "a muck-raking, biased network that responsible, caring and aware citizens of the natural world love to hate"[Sun News] The Times Colonist[Communist], a left wing propoganda rag, as biased as most main stream media, who would rather worship mother earth than accept the truth about their egotistical heroes and truth about anything in general. By the way, all climate changes. That is normal. Get used to it.
H. Adam, Vancouver Island

Norm Farrell said...

Some excellent comments here and bravo to you for writing a difficult article. Together, a fine example of internet communication.

Of course, Suzuki would not be the first celebrity to believe everything PR people are paid to write. The environmental movement is more than one, or a handful, of unbounded egotists. However, it certainly has its share; maybe more than its share.

David said...

o basically you are pleased that your snap judgement of David Suzuki based on one observation years ago is now reinforced by another snap judgement.

David Suzuki is a world famous scientist, author and television personality. Should his speaking fees be low or free because he does "good work?" What are the speaking fees of an equally famous novelist or economist?

Perhaps the request for decently dressed students to escort him through the campus was to avoid being surrounded by burly uniformed security guards. To assume that Suzuki must be a lecherous old man may be totally unfounded.

Anonymous said...

Most environmentalists have blinders on. "St. David" has been milking you for years. He isn't even that knowledgeable about the environment.

Bharat said...

Paul McLeod, the Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and a real journalist investigated the Ezra Levant Story, and here's what he found:

How to Manufacture a Story: David Suzuki Edition

https://offtherecordnocomment.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/how-to-manufacture-a-story-david-suzuki-edition/

Do take the time to read this, and his update as well https://offtherecordnocomment.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/eza-and-me/

All there is to say, really. Pretty shameful journalism

goat10000 said...

Environmentalism has more than a hint of misanthropy about it.

That one of its high priests should turn out to be a misanthrope should not be a shock.

Jan said...

David Suzuki was a fruit-fly geneticist some 20 or 30 years ago. He has no expertise in climatology and has been raking in millions supporting the bogus science around it. He is in the same category as Al Gore, as far as I am concerned. His foundation has 12 paid lobbyists to influence government policy on resources, yet he claims "charitable status" for his foundation so he can use tax-payer money. Something very fishy here! He has two luxury homes, a condominium and 5 children (no problem there), but criticizing others for their "carbon footprint", when his is hug, seems somewhat hypocritical to me. Also, in his interview on CBC's Strombo, he says that fame, power and money no longer interest him. If that is true, why charge a small college over $41,000 for a 55 min. speech?

Anonymous said...

Suzuki and Levant have both had things to say about each other for years. With regard to the recently revealed emails, I believe the idea was to have some minimal protection for the celebrity speaker without appearing too militant. I understand the penthouse references are to a new science building on the campus which was being opened with a $650 per plate gala evening which they sold out by touting Suzuki's visit, he being the keynote speaker, in addition to having given talks and press conferences previously during the day. I believe it likely worked in their favour financially.

http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1049751/update-dr-david-suzuki-at-john-abbott-college

Anonymous said...

I was at his speech at John Abbott, and based on some of his comments (to faculty, not students!), he clearly doesn't suffer fools gladly.
But Levant's piece is full of misunderstandings (to be generous). The "penthouse" he refers to was the top-floor classroom in the new Science building that Suzuki's visit was to celebrate. A private donor paid Suzuki's $30k speakers fee, not public funds (I'm sure Levant doesn't oppose private funding for education!) and it all went to his Foundation. While it sounds like a lot, keep in mind that Sarah Palin's daughter apparently charges in the same range! Sure, the concern with appearances and how the students would dress was a little over the top, but if you've spent any time on a college campus recently, not completely unjustified. A wish for unobtrusive security and a stupid joke about Suzuki preferring to be surrounded by "pretty girls" (not made by him, either) is being blown way out of context by someone who is just out to discredit him.
The truth is that the college went overboard by treating Suzuki's visit as almost a divine visitation. But that doesn't justify Levant's comments.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

When I (and most people I should think) am within spitting distance of a Big Person my critical observational skills really get going. It's a National Enquirer/News of the World thing we humans have exhibited forever. A skill set Canadians have developed better than most; one we apply to just about everybody but hockey players. There is a Latin expression that puts our critical fascination with the Bigs of the world into a perspective that works for me. Arse longa vita brevis.

Pulseguy said...

I'm an old guy and my experience has taught me good things don't come from nasty bad people. Everyone I know who has spent time with DS can't stand him. I doubt in the long run he will have accomplished anything that would not have been accomplished anyway. There has been and continues to be a sea change in how people view themselves in relation to the world. This would have happened with him, or without him. I can't say for certain he has been much help.

Pulseguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Bharat, as someone who tries not to judge people you haven't met or interacted with,you do a pretty good job of vilifying Ezra Levant. Have you met him? I agree with your opinion of him. But what you are really trying to say in your post is that you only judge people whose opinions are in opposition to your own.

Anonymous said...

I've followed some of Suzuki's discussions on Television mostly about the environment. What do these people think? That the climate won't change ? Of course it will and we should spend more of our energy in anticipation of that. In the next several hundred years all of the Arctic Ice will be gone including the Greenland Ice Sheet. Are we the cause? not likely. Has it happened before? Yes. The cycle has been going on now for about 2.5 to 3 million years.Give us a Break!
What started it? Well a tectonic plate movement about 3 million ybp joined North and South America creating the Ithsmus of Panama and altering the Ocean Currents. Guess what? this is a major influence on climate change unlike atmospheric CO2. Within 500kybp the Ice sheets began to advance and it continues David Suzuki or no David Suzuki.

John Monaghan said...

To be frank I have always enjoyed David Suzuki's "talks" on television, However I do think he's a bit over the top on climate change. A serious look at the history of climate change indicates that the major effect of Anthropogenic influence is rhetorical and imaginary. What caused the Holocene Thermal Maximum? We haven't gotten back to that yet. Was it the campfires of early Sapiens? Why are we in this Glacial/interglacial Cycle? The Glaciers will be back probably within the next 1000 years.

Anonymous said...

You made the comment that it was the college's fault for giving into his DEMANDS for young women to escort him around. With that thinking than it must be true that a woman who is beat by her husband most likely deserved it.

Anonymous said...

David Suzuki has four homes, bought 3 lots on quadra island to put up his hacienda. He is in the "don't do as I do - do as I say" category. He has been raking in the money for years at the tax payers expense. He is not an environmentalist but a "capitalist".
The guy wrote about his daughter's sex life and his own. Is that an environmental issue? That is just weird.

Martha A said...

He's very rude and arrogant in person, even to his fans. Utterly distasteful.

Anonymous said...

Grew up in Campbell River across from Quadra Island and heard stories about his mostly vacant place there.

A funny story, as a 19 year old I was driving a small car with 4 buddies travelling to Prince George and we came along side a huge van with, wouldn't you know it, David Suzuki and passenger. The rest of the van was empty.

Nothing he said made sense after that as I couldn't get my head around why he could lecture me on my footprint when he was driving this gas guzzling vehicle. A small thing but always made me listen to him differently

Anonymous said...

I bumped into him today and I can confirm his jerkiness.

Mary said...

I've met him and yes he is a total asshole. I was introduced by a friend in the media, and I had been a lifelong fan and was looking for employment in conservation. The rude encounter with Suzuki rocked my world enough to encourage me to pursue a career in resource exploration. It was a blessing in disguise, because I make much more money now than I would have as an environmental activist. Suzuki is a selfish nut.