Why don’t ‘respectable’ elites call out nonsense?
So-called respectable “elites”’ have columnist Tom Urbaniak seeing red. Find out more.
You and I know them. They’re the letterhead people, respectable citizens who like to be insiders. They serve on prestigious boards or in prestigious offices, recruited for their names or connections. They like to be attached to venerable institutions or endowed organizations. They preach service to others and stand for all that is virtuous and good.
But when faced with a moment of truth, they pick silence and quiet acquiescence. They won’t call out nonsense.
I have been reflecting on the letterhead people at home and abroad. What happens when they have their moment to do what is right?
Last month, after-the-fact public-accounts documents revealed that Acadia University got $10.5-million in secretive bailouts from the provincial government last year, on top of extra millions the previous years. This was a quiet arrangement not bestowed on Cape Breton University, which had to make major cuts and whose appeals for help were turned back, citing a formula.
How did politicians, provincial public servants, Acadia administrators and board members keep the bailout under wraps? Why did no one in the know – and there would have been many people in the know – publicly question the procedure here?
The public, the opposition and government backbenchers in the House of Assembly deserved direct information and an explanation for such major, unbudgeted expenditures.
I suppose dissent or a pointed question in a meeting would not have been “respectable.” That is concerning.
Unfortunately, even leaders whose outward behaviour is very unrespectable benefit from the duplicity of those who like to consider themselves respectable elites.
On July 24, United States President Donald Trump gave a crudely partisan, rambling tirade to 40,000 teenagers at the jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America. He savaged opponents and preached spite and selfish individualism.
The Boy Scouts were now put to the test. The sight and sound of their teens cheering a vicious, demagogic speech could set the organization back decades. In one swoop, it could cancel any inroads the Boy Scouts had made in minority communities, especially among people who are feeling very vulnerable right now.
But the president (volunteer board chair) of the organization, Randall Stephenson, ducked. He beat around the bush about whether such behaviour from the commander-in-chief was acceptable. Stephenson said that he would invite Trump back, adding that reining in the president of the United States would be “beyond our pay grade.”
Stephenson was recruited to the board of the Boy Scouts at least partly because of his money and connections. A 2016 Scouts press release touted his role in helping AT&T, of which Stephenson is the CEO, attain $147-billion in revenues in 2015.
For Stephenson, in turn, the Boy Scouts are a golden opportunity to appear benevolent. It’s a great letterhead on which to be listed. And while the going was good, preaching the Scout law had no downside.
Meanwhile, AT&T is looking to the Trump administration to approve some big commercial transactions. Calling out the president of the United States, even if it would mean being true to the Scout pledge, might not be respectable within Stephenson’s circles when so much profit is at stake.
But motives for duplicity may be more complex than profit. In June, a certain Thomas Paprocki burst into the headlines south of the border. He’s the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois.
Paprocki issued a written decree threatening to punish any priest who does a funeral for a person in a same-sex marriage unless that person had renounced his or her spouse before death.
After this, virtually no one in church leadership would take media interviews on the matter. They ran for cover. For them, it was more important not to acknowledge that a bishop could be wrong than it was to stand up for the most basic human dignity for LGBT Catholics. It seems that within the closed world of the church hierarchy, public dissent is not respectable, no matter what pain is caused to people.
Again, the institutional dignitaries would not call out the nonsense.
I have used the word “elites.” But the respectable citizens could well be us in a given situation. Will we insist on fairness and transparency? Will we stand up to the bullies? Will we speak for people targeted by outrageous decisions?
Those are questions in our work and in our communities. And they are questions of our times.
“How did politicians, provincial public servants, Acadia administrators and board members keep the bailout under wraps?”
Tom Urbaniak is a political scientist at Cape Breton University. He welcomes the exchange of ideas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .