Monday, June 11, 2007

Stuck in a moment

While attending the G8 summit in Germany last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper may finally have revealed just how behind the times he is. Not that many of his conservative stances on numerous issues — from same sex marriage to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer — had not already revealed the telltale signs of an antiquated mind, but this time around, by publicly snubbing an international celebrity-cum poverty activist who in recent years has done a lot of good for the world’s destitute, Harper may have reached a new low.

Or rather, he may have shown the extent to which his world view is tainted by big money. After all, the G8 summit is about the world’s wealthiest countries, which can afford to dine and wine while bickering about where to park their next anti-ballistic missile systems and so on. So no time to meet U2’s lead singer Bono (hence is stiff mug not appearing next to the popular musician above). Even US President George W. Bush could find the time, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel — in the process giving publicity and lending legitimacy to a man who genuinely endeavors to find solutions to one of the planet’s worst scourges, that of poverty.

Adding insult to injury, Harper said that unlike his predecessor, he had no time to meet mere “celebrities,” that it wasn't his "style." Paul Martin, whom Harper never misses an occasion to snipe at, had met Bono, along with other celebrity activists, on a number of occasions. The implicit message in Harper’s comment was that Martin was either wasting his precious time or simply seeking to brush elbows with pop stars.

Busy prime ministerial schedule or not, a true leader should make the time to hold talks with activists who have successfully used their star status to publicize a cause. In more ways that one, it is such individuals nowadays — the Bonos, Gates and so on — who are making a true difference, not government representatives who, not unlike Harper, are too busy talking defense and business, in the process kowtowing to the US and, increasingly, to Beijing (how quickly Harper forgot about jailed human rights activist Husayin Celil).

A true leader is one who realizes that the world we live in is now much more than the sum of its countries and governments, a world where ideas and the capacity to make a difference come from technologically super-empowered individuals, to quote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, along with media-savvy non-state actors such as NGOs and the Bonos of this world.

A visionary leader who takes his responsibilities to the world seriously would recognize that someone like Bono, even if said leader cannot look beyond the “pop star” status, has the capacity to affect much more lives in places like Africa than any government department in Canada ever could. Bono and his like have a mobilizing power and have gained a level of respect that allows them into households with much more ease than politicians and government officials, who are often the object of suspicion, if not cynicism. Imagine for a second all the good that could be accomplished if Bono were to move the Wall Street high-flyers to give but 1 percent of the year-end bonus they collectively received last year — yes, just the bonus — which reached a whooping US$23.9 billion (Canada's total budget for foreign aid this year is C$3.45 billion, or about seven times less than that year-end bonus). Think governments, people like Stephen Harper, can accomplish such a feat? Think again. If anyone will, it will be someone like Bono.

But no. Not Harper. To realize this would be asking too much of him. Stick to old, safe protocol and the status quo (in other words, to his so-called "style"), whereby heads of state give the impression they are doing something while in reality all it is they do is perpetuate a system that leaves nearly half of the world’s population behind while rich countries continue to enrich themselves (activists have been accusing Canada of trying to block a deal that would ensure Western countries will live up to their promises to boost aid to Africa).

So in the name of many Canadians who actually care, my sincere apologies, Mr. Bono, for the man we put in office and the disrespectful manner in which he snubbed you. Harper wasn’t too busy to meet you; he simply didn’t have the vision, stuck in a moment as he is (to paraphrase one of your songs) to do so.

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