Desmond Tutu

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Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu presumably knew perfectly well when he made his now-famous comment about Alberta’s Bitumen Sands yesterday that it doesn’t much matter who you are, you’re bound to be the subject of hysterical ritual trashing if you dare to speak out in this province against the Sands’ development.

Nor does it really matter how mild or strong your criticism is, or how nuanced or direct you happen to make it, the level and type of the vituperation you are subjected to will be pretty much the same.

Just the same, Bishop Tutu — an Anglican who had already established his credentials for fearlessness in the fight against Apartheid, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee pointed out back in the day — went ahead and was pretty strong in his commentary at a conference in Fort McMurray on bitumen mining and First Nations treaty rights.

“The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed,” he now-famously said, although this is a little more nuanced than most headlines made it appear. “The oilsands are emblematic of an era of high carbon and high-risk fuels that must end if we are committed to safer climate.”

Predictably, the hysterical pile-on started immediately in some of the darker corners of the Internet, and is now moving mainstream.

Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Ric McIver, who is running from behind and therefore must have figured he needed to get there fustest with the mostest, was quickly quoted by what used to be the daily press complaining about the churchman’s remarks.

Nowadays, with concern about the effect on the planet’s climate by carbon emissions from Bitumen Sands mining in northern Alberta running high enough to attract criticism by prominent people, including musicians, filmmakers and religious leaders, “celebrity” has taken on the quality of a swear word here in the New West, as all Albertans have come to understand.

We call this the full Neil Young Treatment, and the implication is that if you’re a celebrity — no matter how you came by your renown — you must not know what you’re talking about, at least if you’re saying bad things about bitumen.

So McIver was quick to trot down that well-worn path, sniffing that Bishop Tutu was part of a “parade of celebrities” who need, as the Calgary Herald put it, “to better educate themselves” about our bitumen. (The days when newspaper editors demanded their reporters educate themselves better about split infinitives are apparently long gone.)

Reports of McIver’s first shot were quickly followed by a sycophantic Tweet by a former Stephen Harper and Christy Clark aide who happens to be his campaign manager calling them “Refreshing plain talk. Refreshing.”

Not that McIver himself demonstrated a particularly deep understanding of the issue, emphasizing how neatly bitumen mining companies tidy up after themselves and failing to mention the debate about carbon emissions, which is where the controversy really lies.

But then, remarks like McIver’s aren’t really about dialogue, they’re about seeing who can yell the loudest at anyone who raises their head in opposition to bitumen mining, plus getting the most headlines.

Worse is sure to come in the next few days, and perhaps even Prime Minister Harper will step in and assail the South African churchman once he finishes compiling his clippings from his jeremiad against Communism, which apparently ran to a length worthy of Fidel Castro.

Any Alberta politician who doesn’t contribute to the ritual trashing of Bishop Tutu out here where Green has become the new Red, of course, risks a trashing of his or her own at the hands of all the usual suspects on both sides of the Legislature, in the mainstream media and its antisocial online counterpart.

So I was surprised that Tory candidate Thomas Lukaszuk showed admirable restraint and disagreed respectfully with Bishop Tutu, which is entirely to his credit.

What the brainiacs of Alberta’s petroelite and their pet politicians don’t seem to get is that they’re shooting themselves in both feet every time they assail another celebrity — whether their target became one by plucking a guitar or by being, as President Barack Obama said of Bishop Tutu when he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “an unrelenting champion of justice and human dignity.”

This may not matter to McIver, of course. He’s just trying to get ahead out here and drum up some votes among the common clay of the new West.

But you’d think some of the others might wise up to the possibility that taking potshots at this particular messenger could actually amplify his message ’round the world.

Don’t count on it, though.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...