Issues

June 2008

Re: “Politics as Spectacle,” by Mark Fried

Re: “Politics as Spectacle” by Mark Fried

Mark Fried’s review of my recent book, Celebrity Diplomacy, provides a considerable measure of encouragement mixed with a dose of disappointment (“Politics as Spectacle,” June 2008). From the first lines of his review, Fried drills down to the core of the book’s argument: that the most sophisticated of these celebrity diplomats use a combination of buzz and bite to pursue their agenda. Everybody wants access to Bono, and Bono in turn uses that access as a honey-trap to push his agenda on development aid, debt relief and health.

To showcase this trend is not to suggest that celebrity diplomacy will be used only to advance an agenda for public good. As alluded to by Fried, the China dimension has come to the fore in a far more adversarial fashion than I would have anticipated when composing the book. Mia Farrow initiated this trend as a serious endeavour in her assault on the Beijing Olympics, positioning it as a pivotal site for a very different form of celebrity diplomacy, pitting Hollywood notables against China’s own celebrities (including Jackie Chan).

As suggested by Fried, the element of spectacle or theatre is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of celebrity diplomacy. What differentiates Bono — and Angelina Jolie and George Clooney — from the non-governmental organizations is the name and face recognition. NGOs might do excellent work both as lobbyists and on the front lines, but they cannot grab the media attention that celebrities do. Yet, as part of this work, these same celebrities risk being seen as either manipulators or manipulated, as calculated exponents of Realpolitik or naive idealists. As Bono charms and then criticizes Paul Martin (an embrace Stephen Harper has studiously avoided), he himself is criticized for being too charming and too soft on the major power brokers George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

This leads to the element of disappointment in the review. Although Fried is generous in his praise and judicious in his criticism, he avoids dealing with the set of issues that should be at the core of his organizational concerns. Bono is part of a bigger picture of the Bono-ization of diplomacy, where celebrities become part of a loose but potent network that includes but does not privilege NGOs. The same question therefore must be asked of organizations (such as celebrity-friendly Oxfam) as of politicians: do their initiatives catch fire or get burned by fanning the flame of fame?

Andrew F. Cooper
Waterloo, Ontario


Re: “Politics as Spectacle” by Mark Fried

I have been given the opportunity of reading the review by Mark Fried of Andrew F. Cooper’s book, Celebrity Diplomacy. I’ve not yet had a chance to read the book itself but I know Andrew Cooper, and it is hard to find someone more knowledgeable of the matters of which he writes.

I also know Bono. He came to see me in Prague at the time of the International Monetary Fund meetings in 2000. At that time I had just broken from the G7 consensus and on Canada’s behalf had substantially advanced the file in terms of relieving the unbearable debt burden so many of the world’s poorest countries had to shoulder. Bono certainly was a celebrity, but what was most remarkable about him was his depth of knowledge and the genuine concern that moved him. We became friends and we shared the same view in terms of the 0.7 percent target for foreign aid, with one exception. Fried’s review refers to this when he states “I suspect Martin was personally convinced by the moral and intellectual argument” for the 0.7 percent target. Fried is mistaken, however, when he goes on to say, “with an election looming, he just did not see enough votes in it.” The truth is quite the opposite and at the time I stated this publicly.

One of the fundamental obstacles to the alleviation of global poverty is the tendency of the rich world’s political leaders to seek votes at home by making global commitments abroad that they have no intention of keeping once the photo ops are over. This was true at Gleneagles in terms of the 0.7 percent target. It is also the case with too many international commitments when governments buy goodwill at home in order to delay taking action abroad — Rio de Janeiro on the environment, for example.

I believe the way to achieve the 0.7 percent is not to make a commitment 10 or 15 years into the future, but to make a series of shorter-term commitments one after the other that would put Canada on track to the ultimate objective and would enable Canadians to keep their government’s feet to the fire. I continue to believe that this is the best way to achieve global fairness. After all, it’s the way we eliminated the deficit here at home.

I would have one other comment on Mark Fried’s review. He wonders if “celebrities speaking truth to power” works. The answer is it depends on the celebrity. If the latter is simply speaking from a script written by someone else it has little effect. If the celebrity is as knowledgeable and as truly committed as is Bono it can have a great deal of effect.

Right Honourable Paul Martin
Ottawa, Ontario


Re: “Sharia and Its Discontents,” by Anver M. Emon

Re: “Sharia and Its Discontents” by Anver Emon

In his review of Sherene Razack’s Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, Anver Emon criticizes Razack’s explanation of the sharia debate in Ontario (“Sharia and Its Discontents,” June 2008). Sadly, both feed into the same racist discourse which they criticize, when they limit the Ontario debate to Muslims and sharia laws.

Many believe Muslim woman have no objection to sharia, which we view as an encompassing value in Islam. It is Muslim family law to which we objected.

The issue in Ontario was that the Arbitration Act allowed for the use of any laws, including religious laws, in private legally binding arbitration. Although the Jewish beit din had used the act for many years, the public outcry was raised only when a Muslim lawyer spoke publicly of initiating a sharia tribunal in 2003. The issue should have remained focused on the differential treatment of religious women in law. Instead, the debate became overladen with complex issues of multiculturalism, such as legal pluralism and religious rights.

More than 30 organizations advocated against any religious laws in legally binding private arbitration for family matters and it took over two and a half years to change the act. As opponents of the act, we emphasized the legal equality of all women. This position was based on the fact that no religious laws, including Muslim family laws, have the equality of women as a fundamental value.

Emon’s criticism that the debate did not raise the issues of legal pluralism or multiculturalism is incorrect. These were, in fact, the main arguments made by the proponents for religious family laws. They evoked multiculturalism and religious rights and cried discrimination against Islam and sharia. Emon’s statement that the opponents of the act were concerned about the “oppressive Muslim husband” belittles the focus of our criticism, which was on religious laws and not individuals.

Rather than Razack’s racism theory, the more pervasive argument used was cultural relativism: a belief that Muslim women should be viewed as so different that the same rights under Canadian law need not apply to them. We did not feel “imperilled” until we were told that our equality was secondary to religious rights, which must include religious family laws.

When Professor Emon and his ilk talk of sharia, why is it limited to family laws and not the entirety of Muslim jurisprudence? We echo his wish for a “vibrant sharia discourse” if it includes Muslim majority countries, the political use of religion, identity politics and gender discrimination in the laws.

Alia Hogben
Canadian Council of Muslim Women


Re: “W.H.O. is Brock Chisholm?,” by Michael Bliss

Re: “W.H.O. is Brock Chisholm?” by Michael Bliss

Michael Bliss believes Brock Chisholm to have been an all-round second rater who failed as the first director general of the World Health Organization and held naive social ideas about public health (“W.H.O. is Brock Chisholm?,” June 2008). Thus, as far as Bliss is concerned, Chisholm should be thrown into the dustbin of history, deservedly forgotten by everyone and certainly not worthy of a book-length study.

Bliss’s review tends toward a diatribe against Chisholm, who, according to Bliss, failed in almost everything he did, whether as a psychiatrist, as the director general of medical services during World War Two or, especially, as director general of the WHO. According to Bliss, the survival and growth of the WHO during these early years owes nothing to Chisholm and other public health experts who fully supported his attempts to build the organization against a backcloth of power politics.

Bliss also takes exception to Chisholm’s social approach to public health. Most public health experts, now and in the past, agree with Chisholm that poverty is as much a public health problem as disease, and that magic-bullet “impact campaigns” against individual diseases without any reference to the social conditions in which people live would have little long-term value. Bliss is ideologically opposed to this “wildly expensive and impractical” approach, and even drags into the review an attack on Canada’s socialized medical system and the over-hyped work of “St. Thomas Douglas.”

It was not my intent to over-hype Chisholm into some sort of medical superhero, and yes, many of his speeches were, as Bliss is happy to point out, quite silly. But I, like others in the WHO whom I quote, believe that Chisholm did play a positive role in those crucial early years. The fact that many Canadians believed Chisholm to have been, in my words, “a godless, opinionated, outspoken iconoclast with a propensity to put his foot in his mouth,” only serves to enhance my interest in him and to remove him from a dustbin of dullness and ineptitude where Bliss wishes to leave him.

John Farley
Halifax, Nova Scotia


Re: “W.H.O. is Brock Chisholm?” by Michael Bliss

In his review of Brock Chisholm, the World Health Organization and the Cold War, Michael Bliss has, with customary skill, displayed some of the WHO’s fallibilities and it is hard not to agree with his assessment of Brock Chisholm’s modest role in the furtherance of world health. Pricking balloons of false national pride can produce a satisfying pop.

But the WHO’s World Health Report 2000 is not the appropriate tool to burst the balloon for Canada’s healthcare system. In a wide-ranging review (available at http://www.longwoods.com/product.php?productid=17238, Canadian health policy expert Raisa Deber summarized the flaws of the report whose methodology has since been discontinued. The fact that Canada ranked a relatively lacklustre 30th in overall health-system performance in these tables, while France was ranked number one, was largely due to this dubious methodology. Basically, the rankings in the 2000 report did not directly measure actual health outcomes, but rather how well these outcomes compared with what might be expected after discounting for the effects ºore, it was assumed that the impact of these other determinants could be extrapolated by looking at the statistical influence of just one variable — a country’s average years of schooling. Canada’s relatively good health results were therefore heavily discounted because of Canadians’ high average levels of education. As Deber concludes, after a close look at the rankings and their calculation, “these values are not particularly useful in evaluating the performance of any healthcare system, including that of Canada. It is past time that policy analysts retire this particular pseudo-statistic.”

If one looks at the WHO’s Global Health Statistics 2008, which uses real, not estimated, healthcare data, then one sees that in 2005 Canada equalled or outperformed France and other frontrunners from the 2000 report in almost all categories, including mortality, life expectancy, cervical screening and immunization. Furthermore, those who focus on healthcare costs and efficiency should note that France spent 11.2 percent of gross domestic product on health care while Canada spent 9.7 percent. Our healthcare system remains intact according to this most recent report.

Andrew Baines
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “W.H.O. is Brock Chisholm?” by Michael Bliss

It would seem legitimate to expect from a mature reviewer some balanced judgement on the subject he has chosen to treat. Michael Bliss (“W.H.O. Is Brock Chisholm?” June 2008) does not like or respect Chisholm and, I should add, neither does he like or respect the United Nations system. Such feelings and controversial interpretations may be acceptable in any person—even in an emeritus historian—but lack of judgement certainly is not.

Sweeping statements such as “the organization evolved almost literally in spite of its director general” run counter to reality and have no place in a scholarly discussion. In fact the historian of the World Health Organization, Norman Howard-Jones, no soft-spoken judge, writes that “although Chisholm relinquished his office after only five years, his personality and his idealism left an indelible mark on the World Health Organization.” His six successors acknowledge this without reserve.

It puts too low a price on the judgement and integrity of internationally respected public health giants such as Andrija Štampar and Karl Evang, who repeatedly voted Chisholm to increasingly higher office, to be told that he was “a bit of a second-rater” or a surprise choice. Bliss thinks there was mieux (his italics), that Chisholm was “naive” and “had no expertise in public health work.” Yes, Chisholm was no Master of Public Health but he knew how to surround himself with the best experts of the time and, as his objective was the public’s health rather than traditional public health, his being from outside the club should be seen as an advantage, as indeed it proved to be. To quote Howard-Jones again, “he was the natural choice.” And it cannot be by accident that the WHO has maintained its course and has kept on sailing under similarly able leadership over the past 60 years.

Bliss laments that Chisholm did not bring anything to Canada. But this is entirely misreading the director general’s agenda. As a young soldier Chisholm fought valiantly for his country and was decorated as a brave patriot. Yet once elected to the international arena, his “country” became the world, and his “patriotism” humankind. Boldly standing against chauvinism, he would have considered it jingoistic and a betrayal of his mission to act, or to be included among “the great mandarins of the golden age of the Canadian civil service,” as Bliss oneirizes. At times the argument misses its target entirely, when it is stated that “misplaced national pride can be a powerful and dangerous opiate.” But that’s exactly what Chisholm was preaching half a century earlier!

Had the book contained a postscript, the critic would have seen that most of Chisholm’s early controversial ideas have turned out not to be that illusory after all: the link between poverty and disease is well established and is key to the UN Millennium Development Goals; the dreams of federalism are partly met by the European Union; the anti-nuclear stand has seen Pugwash receive the Nobel Peace Prize; socially available medical services are now taken for granted; and family planning has hugely contributed to the progress of China and India.

Fortunately, there are bound to be unbiased assessments of John Farley’s book, which should be read as a fair account of the beginnings of the World Health Organization and of its earliest mentor.

S. William Gunn
Bogis-Bossey, Switzerland


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