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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Why Tiger tops climate, Afghanistan Add to ...

Are you feeling guilty about your lack of interest in the news? Do you secretly care more about Tiger Woods's sex life than Afghan detainees? Do your eyes glaze over whenever someone mentions "Copenhagen"?

You're not alone.

"I feel incredibly superficial, but I'm really not paying much attention to the news these days," a friend confessed the other day. "Maybe it's because I feel so helpless to do anything about it."

I don't think my friend is superficial at all. She's simply conserving her attention for stories that are real.

At the risk of offending my esteemed colleagues, let me defend my guilty friend. Perhaps she has correctly guessed that, despite all the air time it eats up on The Current, the giant screaming match in Copenhagen is an utterly meaningless event. That's because there's a fundamental disconnect between the lofty rhetoric of climate change and what rich nations are prepared to do about it. There was never a chance they'd reach a deal. And as dozens of world leaders jostle for their last-minute photo ops, the fate of the polar bears won't change a bit.

In the absence of substance, the media have turned the climate-change story into a litmus test of Canada's virtue, or lack thereof. We should be ashamed of ourselves, we're told. Our emissions have soared (although not as much as Spain's). We are among the worst climate offenders in the world, and everyone knows it (except for the 5.99 billion people who don't).

Our government's seemingly prudent decision to harmonize Canada's climate policies with the U.S. is seen as an embarrassing cop-out, and our oil sands are proof of original sin. If only our economy had collapsed, like Russia's! Then we'd be climate heroes, with billions of dollars worth of carbon credits stashed in our climate piggy bank.

The prospects for a binding, enforceable climate accord - next week, next year or next century - are about as remote as the prospect that Afghanistan will be transformed into a thriving, modern, liberal state. You are entitled to feel helpless about that story, too. Nor are you necessarily a bad person if you aren't as outraged about the fate of Afghan detainees as you ought to be.

Like climate change, the detainee issue has turned into another symbolic story about morality and virtue. "I feel ashamed to be Canadian," letters to the editor frequently proclaim, which really means the writer thinks the heavy-handed Harper government (or the oil sands) is evil.

The nub of the story - that some Afghan prisoners detained by Canadian soldiers were abused in Afghan jails - is neither new nor particularly surprising. The problem was resolved long ago, although it probably should have been fixed sooner than it was. Now the story is about the Harper government's obstructive tactics to hush it up. It's about who knew what, when did they know it, what they claim they knew, and whether information was suppressed or ignored. These are good questions. But the story has been turned by all sides into political theatre.

Most Canadians seem to have decided that the detainee scandal does not amount to a potential war crime, despite what some human-rights activists allege. Instead, it's the kind of snafu you'd expect when you go off to war with few resources, in an unfamiliar place, where certain protocols are not in place and the local allies are not up to date on the Geneva Conventions. (That's not an excuse, just an observation.) This is not a repeat of Somalia, when our own soldiers were doing the abusing. For most people, it's a confirmation that the sooner we're out of there, the better.

The detainee story may also be a way for us to avoid a harder (and politically unsayable) truth: that despite our best intentions, our Afghan mission - for reasons beyond our control - has been an utter failure.

Wouldn't you rather read about Tiger Woods? Me, too.

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