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.