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Rights + Justice

What the Kielburgers, Trudeau and Zuckerberg Have in Common

On the precipice of downfall, these men can’t see past their own heartwarming hero story.

Sarah Berman 31 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Sarah Berman is a reporter and editor based in Vancouver.

Blinking, nodding, eyebrows raised with concern. The hairlines are different, but the expressions are familiar. And judging by the shrinking nice guy postures on display, you wouldn’t guess that these are some of the most powerful men in the world.

Over the span of days, WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all testified before elected officials with tough questions about their conduct as leaders.

While tuning in this week, I was overcome with an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. Obviously Trudeau and Zuckerberg have done this before. They’ve had practice saying the right words and apologizing like good progressives often do when they’re on the precipice of downfall. But the Kielburgers’ contributions to the genre added a new unsettling dimension. As they outlined their version of the student grant scandal, something clicked into place.

Unlike in Trudeau’s past ethics scandals or Zuckerberg’s previous appearances before Congress, these interrogations went down via video teleconference. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic they each appeared in a separated box, their disembodied heads floating on screens. For me it underscored something special these men share in common: an uncanny ability to remain inside their own self-styled world, in which they always get to play the heartwarming hero.

Take Zuckerberg. As the founder of one of the world’s most pervasive social media platforms, he’s already been grilled about the ways his company has allowed political misinformation to spread, possibly compromising the integrity of elections. This week it was about Facebook’s monopolistic domination over the tech industry. The stakes are high, and the consequences are many. But instead of acknowledging our treacherous, uncertain global predicament, Zuckerberg’s opening remarks presented a narrative of triumph and progress.

Zuck opened his testimony with a tribute to someone else’s hero story — that of lifelong civil rights activist and U.S. congressman John Lewis. In his next breath he positioned the tech industry’s meteoric rise as a great American success story.

“Facebook is part of this story,” he told Congress. “We started with an idea: to give people the power to share and connect. And we’ve built services that billions of people find useful.”

Zuckerberg then said he was proud to have given a voice to people “who’ve never had a voice before,” which admittedly set off my white saviour spidey sense before the one-minute mark. Over the years I’ve learned to question the concept of “the voiceless” — more often these are categories of people who have been speaking up this whole time, it’s just that powerful people haven’t been listening.

Giving a voice to the voiceless has traditionally been the domain of do-gooders like the Kielburgers. When they started Free the Children in 1995, it was because 12-year-old Craig discovered global poverty in the newspaper. The charity has since grown into a massive, many-limbed social enterprise endorsed by the likes of Oprah and the Dalai Lama. The global expansion has been aided by the problematic halo of that good-intentioned origin story.

While testifying, the Kielburgers maintained their own innocent good guy narrative. They’re not the ones accused of awarding a contract despite Trudeau’s many troubling family connections. WE Charity took on the $912-million student loan program because they wanted to make a difference, Craig testified, not because they wanted a handout from the government. If they had known the consequences, Craig would have never picked up the phone.

WE Charity and the Kielburgers have benefited, rhetorically and financially, from standing on the moral high ground of vehemently opposing child slavery and other global injustices. On the surface, this can seem like an airtight case for always being right and good. But in practice, it allows for righteous entitlement to go unchecked, and for its leaders to remain above scrutiny. After all, anyone who is asking questions must be pro child labour overseas.

The WE Charity mythology is a dated one, and so we can arguably see its limits and foibles more easily. But Trudeau’s progressive dynasty, with its famed gender-balanced cabinet and two previous ethics scandals, seems to speak from the same untouchable high ground.

It doesn’t help that Craig Kielburger and Trudeau share mannerisms and speaking style. Other commentators at Maclean’s and Canadaland have already pointed out their similar smirk and smize. Marie-Danielle Smith described this brand of condescension as a look that asks “How dare you question my righteousness?”

I get the allure of believing in the progressive boy wonder. Trudeau has repeatedly reminded his questioners that we’re amid a deadly coronavirus pandemic and he’s trying to get resources to Canadians quickly. No matter how many times Conservative Pierre Poilievre asks for hard numbers or facts, Trudeau capably steers back to his own hero story, with his own “move fast and break things” philosophy.

These are men who unfortunately believe their own hype — that they’re connecting the world, freeing African children and keeping a country running despite incredible challenges. But there is too much at stake to take their word for it. Eventually, these leaders are going to have to confront the fact they might be good-intentioned villains in someone else’s hero story.  [Tyee]

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