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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: One man's hero is another's charlatan

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Jimmy Carter is derided as ineffectual by many in the US but has gone on to achieve much post-presidency as a humanitarian. Picture / AP
Jimmy Carter is derided as ineffectual by many in the US but has gone on to achieve much post-presidency as a humanitarian. Picture / AP

Deciding who deserves admiration is a subjective and fraught process.

A reader responded to last week's column questioning the eulogistic treatment given Wellington's late celebrity vagrant Ben Hana, aka Blanket Man, with a pertinent inquiry: who are we to admire?

Having narrowed down the field by declaring that rubbish collectors make a greater contribution to society than currency speculators, my correspondent nominated the following:

* Myanmar's pro-democracy campaigner, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

* Rosa Parks, the American civil rights activist, whose refusal to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger set off a chain reaction which eventually brought an end to racial segregation in the Deep South.

* Businessman and philanthropist Gareth Morgan who paid for Hana's funeral (or, as my correspondent put it, "committed the sin of supporting Blanket Man").

* Those who help the disadvantaged daily.

We tend to admire people who are so exceptional at what we'd like to be good at that there's no point in envying them. Thus many Kiwi males would place Richie McCaw high on their list.

Some people look up to the stars of show business. Those who don't might argue that seeing they're very well rewarded for doing what they've always dreamed of doing, they can do without our admiration. (I've heard the same argument applied to the superstars of the operating theatre.)

One odd aspect of celebrity worship is that the likes of U2's Bono and actor George Clooney, stars with active social consciences who use their fame and influence to draw attention to humanitarian tragedies, are often derided as limousine liberals or, worse, do-gooders.

There's an echo here of the Victorian attitude towards children: they should be seen but not heard.

Likewise philanthropy often draws the response that "it's all very well for them - they can afford it". That may be so, but there's also a grain of truth in the sweeping generalisation that rich people are tightwads: that's how they got to be rich in the first place.

Bill Gates has given away around $35 billion, but seeing he's still got $70-odd billion, you could argue that this largesse hasn't involved any sacrifice on his part.

Perhaps not, but isn't that a textbook case of not seeing the wood for the trees? Does the fact that Gates hasn't had to tighten his belt make a scrap of difference to the beneficiaries of his charity?

The late Australian tycoon Kerry Packer was a polarising figure whose defenders were quick to refer to his behind-the-scenes philanthropy and acts of spontaneous generosity, usually to those who happened to be in the vicinity when he won big on the gaming tables.

Packer waged a long and bitter war against the taxman, winning most of the battles. In 1999, for instance, his private company paid no tax at all on profits of $1.5 billion. The combination of philanthropy and going to enormous lengths to avoid paying tax could be categorised as giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

Unless they are persecuted like Nelson Mandela and Suu Kyi, politicians shouldn't expect to be admired in that period between their political honeymoons and retirement - i.e. the bulk of their careers. This is particularly true in the US where they tend to be more respectful towards ex-presidents than incumbents.

The exception is Jimmy Carter who remains a byword for liberal ineffectuality three decades after leaving the White House.

After winning the South Carolina primary last weekend, Republican contender Newt Gingrich sought to demonstrate his readiness for the main event by attacking Barack Obama in terms intended to send a shiver down every American spine. Obama, he said, was "so weak he makes Jimmy Carter look strong". I guess it depends how you define "strong".

As Carter points out in this week's Time magazine, he's the last president not to have invaded anyone or embroiled America in a war.

Unlike some other ex-presidents, Carter has sought to make himself useful, as opposed to a squillionaire. I've previously drawn attention to his dogged efforts to make hellish parts of the world a little less hellish, notably his effective campaign to eradicate the guinea worm.

We admire those who stand up for their beliefs, like the Syrian demonstrators who are risking and often losing their lives in the quest for freedoms we take for granted.

It can get complicated, though, when the beliefs they're standing up for are incompatible with our own. Sometimes there's a fine line between unshakeable principle allied to unyielding determination and fanaticism that will countenance almost anything if it advances the Cause.

I nominate the women in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan who are campaigning for freedom and equality against barbaric resistance from men who, in the name of religion and tradition, would reduce them to the status of vassals.

- NZ Herald

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