Assembly at UN headquarters, Sept. 20, 2016 in New York City.
Given the chance to address, say, the local numismatics society, or even the rotary club, the wise citizen would gladly choose either of these over the opportunity to speak in front of the ill-named United Nations. The stamp collectors and the Rotarians at least have the virtue of being what they say they are, and when they offer the podium to an outsider, they do so with the honest belief that the speaker will have something interesting or useful to say, and that he or she will actually be listened to.
The United Nations, on the other hand, though it is nothing if not diverse (dictators and kleptocrats rub shoulders with democratic presidents and prime ministers), it is so crosshatched with rivalries, intrigue, devious diplomacy and hypocritical posturing, that to speak of it as “united” is a contradiction in terms.
Consider its Human Rights Council, on which some of the most gruesome theocracies and grinding dictatorships on our tormented planet have held sway, thus undermining the supposed reason for its existence. Once in a while, the body does manage to come to an agreement, but only when its members unite to condemn the state of Israel (the detestation of Israel being something of a ground bass for UN sanctimony).
When the UN, with its posturing and deal-making, is not actively making things worse, or turning a blind eye to atrocities, it does have moments of pure play-acting and harmless diversion. At such moments, it takes on the atmosphere, minus the dignity, of the Ted Talks. These usually coincide with visits from the leaders of the world’s democracies. It is a favoured venue of U.S. President Barack Obama, for example.
Obama favours this meretricious chamber because it allows him to smugly lecture the rest of the world on being on the “right side of history” and the “moral arc” of our times. Meanwhile, the ravages in Syria continue unabated and North Korea, under its sovereign tyrant, Kim Jong-un, continues ramping up its nuclear program. The truly wretched of the Earth grow more wretched and the world, as they say, marches on.
This week, it was our dewy-fresh prime minister’s turn to address this esteemed body and, either out of vanity or innocence, he didn’t turn down the invitation. As to the substance of his effusion, one would need an intellectual Geiger counter to find any. The speech was described by the National Post’s John Ivison as “thin as soup made from the carcass of a starving pigeon.” And that’s being generous.
The address easily could have been passed off as a high-school valedictorian speech: it was trite, without being testy, and full of false equivalencies. It bore the now-ineluctable stamp of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s compulsion to hymn, yet again, the all-ranging virtues of diversity.
This word “diversity” has something of a clamp on Trudeau’s brain. He seems to think that merely to pronounce it out loud is to add to the sum of human insight, that its four flat syllables compress all the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the best of Norman Vincent Peale into one handy little word. Yet fluffing a pillow in front of the UN delegates would have had more of an impact.
It’s a pity that, even in that forlorn venue, Trudeau was unwilling to let go of that rhetorical Linus blanket and say a few things about what is really going on in the world. He could have offered some meaningful analysis on the situation in Syria. He could have uttered some truths to those who rarely hear them. Instead, it was the usual mush about “modest Canada” and how we’re back and ready to help.
It really is time to stop bragging about how modest we are, as one cannot honestly brag about being modest. And besides, it’s unseemly. Let other countries pay testimony to our worth if they are so moved to do so. And as for diversity, yes it is a fine virtue as far as virtues go, but so are unity, coherence, national identity, fiscal competence and the rule of law. Saying the word “diversity” is not like waving a magic wand that somehow rids us of all tribulation and want. Nor is it, by any test, the only metric for a healthy and admirable society.
But it was a UN session, and perhaps it is understood that to scatter anything but clichés and self-congratulations before that august convocation would be a breach of its worthless protocols.