Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hypocrisy is not the Problem

22 March 2007

Credit to CBC Radio for yet another great story.

It turns out that David Suzuki, Al Gore and Michael Moore are ethically flawed.

I hope that you are not entirely shocked by this news. However, the problems are truly serious, particularly in the case of Michael Moore, whose work, in my view, is essentially undone.

What is the scoop?

Let’s begin with David Suzuki, whose global warming crusade is presently being powered by a “polar bear killer rock star” mega diesel bus that is flooding the atmosphere with hydrocarbons on a continuous basis as Suzuki travels the continent with 5 to 6 companions, spreading the news that humans are causing global warming by flooding the atmosphere with hydrocarbons on a continuous basis. Oops.

How about Mr. Gore? Hmmmm. It turns out that his personal electrical bill for power to operate his (obviously lavish) home in the Tennessee Valley is running 13-20 times the national average, at about $1300.00 per month. And what is Mr. Gore’s core message? That we must stop placing inordinate demands on the earth’s environment, as this causes the atmosphere to be flooded with hydrocarbons, which are causing global warming. It appears that Mr. Gore and Mr. Suzuki are suffering from the same problem.

In Mr. Moore’s case, the problem is more serious. Mr. Moore is simply a liar who invents scenes which are dramatically interesting in order to bolster his message that morally inferior people are engaging in unethical behaviours in order to foist their questionable agendas on a susceptible public.

The problem is, Mr. Moore’s scenes are designed to make his enemies look bad and Mr. Moore look good. But – and this is an important but – the scenes were staged, and entirely false. For example, Mr. Moore, in an early film, depicted Roger Smith of General Motors as being unwilling to talk with him. In fact, Mr. Smith spoke with Mr. Moore twice. But this was inconvenient to the narrative which Mr. Moore wished to weave. So he dispensed with the truth and staged a lie.

Now a group of independent documentary filmmakers are documenting Mr. Moore’s story. Guess what? Mr. Moore is perpetually unavailable to talk with them – unlike his former nemesis, Roger Smith, who in fact was willing to speak with Mr. Moore about General Motors. Mr. Moore, welcome to your own club. You are a morally inferior person engaging in unethical behaviours in order to foist your questionable agenda on a susceptible public.

So, are Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Gore and Mr. Moore hypocrites?

Well, it would certainly be easy for any of their critics to make such a case against them. Their weak rejoinders constitute a somewhat pathetic defense. Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Gore purchase carbon credits to atone for their sins. Mr. Moore just likes to tell a good story – so why not blend art and politics in the making of film documentaries?

However, it is not my present wish to enter the particular – and all too obvious – charge of hypocrisy against any of the above three quite evidently hypocritical gentlemen.

My argument is different than that.

Personally, I am not deeply troubled that Mr. Suzuki burns diesel to spread the news about global warming. His message may be important enough to justify the environmental cost. I am also not that troubled by Mr. Gore’s voracious carbon consumption in the Tennessee Valley. Mr. Gore is a public citizen whose personal life must be larger-than-life in order to do what he does. I am somewhat more disturbed by Mr. Moore’s liberty with the truth. He may or may not stand the test of time as an artist of significance, but we can no longer think of him as a documentary filmmaker based on the current revelations.

What then is my criticism?

My far deeper concern is that all three public crusaders, each in his own way, has wandered somewhat off track due to a fundamental conceptual error. Each is focused primarily on what other people do, and in the case of each, this has made what he does, personally and individually, of lesser importance than what other people do. And this fundamental fact troubles me. Hypocrisy – its presence or absence – or its degree – is in this case a secondary concern.

Mr. Gore and Mr. Suzuki imagine that what they do – to persuade others to change – is of such importance that it might justify their personal carbon-lavish lifestyles. Perhaps they are correct in their thinking. But their own behaviour is obviously somewhat contradicting, and therefore undercutting, their mission.

I would assign Mr. Moore to a different, and deeper, level of hell. He is simply a liar, purporting to be a documentarian – and justifying it how? By the capacity of his films to influence the behaviour of others – while the core message – to be ethical and responsible for your actions – obviously does not apply to him in a personal kind of way.

What is the core problem with focusing our efforts – perhaps even our missionary zeal – on persuading others to change? I submit that it is fundamentally a problem of balance.

The heightened focus on the other is accompanied by a diminished focus on oneself. Why is this a problem? Because it in fact is the problem – at least the one that I have been railing about on these pages.

Personal and political agendas which seek primarily to change others are inherently self-defeating, and ultimately dangerous. This is a case I have presented in previous posts, and I will not reiterate it here.

What then might these gentlemen consider doing differently?

Let me proffer the case of an entirely different way of promoting a change agenda.

For over 30 years, I have been interested in the life work of
Helen and Scott Nearing. These (also flawed and sometimes hypocritical) individuals launched on a change crusade that was different in one critical respect from that of Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Gore and Mr. Moore. They determined to change themselves.

How is that different?

In 1932, as I recall, Mr. Nearing had burned several bridges behind him. The author of what was then North America’s leading economics textbook, and a professor at the prestigious Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Nearing alienated his employer by espousing communism – at that time an idealistic crusade in a desperate world struggling to find answers. In my view, communism was the wrong answer, and the communists apparently had the same idea. Almost simultaneously, in both cases due to his independent thinking, Mr. Nearing was ejected from his position with the University of Pennsylvania, and also from his standing as a “card-carrying member” of the communist party. In essence, he had no allies left.

So Helen and Scott, possessing few personal resources at the time, set out to live an honest and simple life in close harmony with the land.

For 20 years, they made their living in the sugar bush of Vermont, producing maple syrup by traditional methods and living in a hand-built stone home with few modern comforts. Then, for somewhat more than an additional 30 years, they moved to the coast of Maine and did the same thing all over again, making their living by growing blueberries.

Did the Nearings have a cause to promote? In fact several.

During their off-time in the winters, they traveled the country in a station wagon loaded with books and pamphlets, speaking to small groups who were interested in hearing what they had to say – about living simply, lightly on the land, healthily and happily. They never became celebrities, though as they travelled from place to place, there were always those willing to hear what they had to say.

In fact, somewhere near my tenth year of life, I happened to meet them as they travelled through my home town of Springfield Missouri, where they spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which was attended by my parents. I recall that natural food snacks were served at the casual gathering which followed their presentation.

The Nearings had no super diesel bus, nor did they have a lavish, energy-guzzling home to return to. They had a simple lifestyle and a simple message. They were not media superstars, and their work was not widely known.

However, something that the Nearings did do (with a zeal akin to that of Suzuki, Gore and Moore) was carry on with their simple way of life, and they were willing to entertain visitors who were personally motivated to travel first to the mountains of Vermont, and then to the coast of Maine in order to spend time with them and to learn something of how the Nearings lived. In turn, the Nearings put their visitors to work, building stone walls, and digging gardens and ponds. The Nearings also fed their guests and chatted with them. They were willing to put their way of life on display for others.

The Nearings were far from perfect or morally consistent. They maintained some pension income about which they rarely spoke, and they hawked Scott’s books avidly to visitors, generating income to enable them to make ends meet and carry on with their not-entirely-simple simple life. In some years in the 60s, 70s and 80s they received thousands of visitors, sometimes dozens in a day. It was not always so simple.

In fact, I was one of those visitors, having travelled to their home on the Maine coast in the spring of 1981, two year’s prior to Scott’s death. At age 98, Mr. Nearing took me outdoors with him to saw the day’s firewood, and then the two chatted with me for an hour or two, before I went on my way. I found them hospitable and gracious in response to my intrusion.

What is different about Helen and Scott Nearing and the three gentlemen whom I profiled earlier? Several contrasts are possible, one of which is of particular interest to me.

Helen and Scott Nearing set about changing themselves. They were willing – in fact eager – to tell others about it, but this was secondary to their purpose. They made a decision to live a certain way, went about doing it, and were willing to take some pains to tell others about it, both by entertaining thousands of visitors, and by driving thousands of miles each winter. But the message always started and stopped from their home and from their way of life.

The message was about how they lived, and it was always borne out of their day to day lives.

I wish now to close with a single idea.

Much lower profile than Al Gore, David Suzuki or Michael Moore, Helen and Scott Nearing were, in my opinion, infinitely more effective.

Suzuki, Gore and Moore are in the business of promoting a message with the primary intent of motivating others to change. The Nearings were in the business of changing their own way of life, and then sharing their experience with others who responded with interest to what they saw the Nearings doing.

The Nearings changed themselves and got it right. Suzuki, Gore and Moore are focusing on changing others, and getting important pieces wrong in the bargain.

The course of the Nearings is in my view both the wiser and the more effective course.

Would you like to learn more?

Visit the
Good Life Centre here.

Learn about
Helen and Scott Nearing here.


  1. This is your wife speaking!

    "Personal... agendas which seek primarily to change others are inherently self-defeating, and ultimately dangerous." Do you really believe this and if so why are you intent on changing me?

  2. I am arguing not against hypocrisy, but against externalization of focus. I will therefore leave it entirely to you to determine your view of the balance of my efforts to change both you and myself. In my view, self-change precedes changing others, and that certainly includes you! I entrust you now to your own devices, and commend you in said venture.

  3. "Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Gore purchase carbon credits to atone for their sins."

    Canada's purchase of carbon credits achieves the same result; No decrease of carbon production simply a drain on our economy as we pay for them.

    Kyoto is the wrong solution to carbon credits, wouldn't you say?


    Have a great vacation

  4. Carbon credits are certainly the wrong kind of idea. In my view, one more example of political correctness run amok. Again, it is a matter of individual decision-making, combined with collective policies which reward such good decisions. Collectively, we are not very good at administering sanctions and reinforcements. You don't tax the big SUVs, but taxing gasoline makes a lot of sense - as Canada has done for years. That might motivate the SUV driver to carpool, or to drive less, but let people drive what they choose - Mr. Gore included. Do tax credits for the purchase of solar power equipment make sense? Yes. The solution for Al Gore's bus? Tax the diesel fuel. Forget the carbon credits.