Public interest doesn’t mean societal interest
I am walking down the hallway that joins the old lab building to the classroom building on my way to the first class of a new semester. The beginning of the fall semester brings out people’s best attempts to maintain their self-image before term papers and midterms constrain people’s fashion attempts to sweatpants, tattered denim and unwashed t-shirts. My eyes are drawn to one of the many poster boards that colour the University of Regina campus.
The board that pops off of the macabre walls of the lab building is advertising neither the Society for Creative Anachronism, nor the Campus Baha’i Association, nor a UR Pride drag show, though these too have led me to question the fiscal wisdom of those who take and spend our tuition money. No, the board that piques my interest today informs me who the new board of directors is for the Regina Public Interest Group (RPIRG).
In my four years here at the U of R, I’ve developed the necessary survival habit of ignoring most, if not all, of the posters on these boards. They’re distracting and I don’t have time to hear or care about the political and social issues raised by my fellow political science students. It’s a concept in economics called “rational ignorance”, and it makes perfect sense.
As I began my last semester, I realized I still had no idea what RPIRG does. I have a vague idea of what they are supposed to do, or claim to do. In my first year at the U of R, I took the initiative to do some preliminary research on this group and that it is part of a larger international network of lobby groups called PIRGs – the brainchild of former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
The always-reliable Wikipedia informs me that PIRGs aim to “[d]eliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects our health, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive democratic government.” A statement on the RPIRG website states the group is “a student funded resource centre at the University of Regina committed to social and environmental justice. We provide the resources and funding necessary to enable students to organize around issues through research, education, and action.”
The first question that comes to mind is, what exactly does “student funded” entail? Further, what issues does RPIRG decide to be worthy of funding?
As it happens, “student funded” means every student at the U of R contributes $5 per semester to this group. That is $5 taken out of my wallet without my explicit consent and used to fund causes I might not agree with and I might actually be diametrically opposed to.
“It’s only $5,” you say? Well, the once-again-reliable Wikipedia puts the current enrollment at the U of R to 12,270 full- and part-time students. This gives RPIRG a $61,350 budget. What exactly are they doing with that money? Are U of R students getting $61,350-worth of value from this group? From my own experience. I would venture a “no”.
Though RPIRG does have a period in the year when a student can chose to opt out of being a member of RPIRG, this opt-out period is not adequately advertised – after four years here I recall hearing about it once. Another visit to the RPIRG website lists some of the recent achievements of the group,,namely sponsoring a lecture titled “The Right Did Wrong” – clever pun they came up with, I know.
The pamphlet advertising the event has a picture of a stern Stephen Harper speaking in the House of Commons, with a blurb about Harper’s alleged contribution to tarnishing Canada’s image in the international community. The RPIRG website touts Yves Engler – the speaker at the lecture – as “one of the most important voices on the Canadian left today.” After discovering this, I resolved to give RPIRG another chance to illustrate its non-partisanship. Perhaps RPIRG also hosts lectures by right-wing speakers.
Well, the next evidence of RPIRG activity I find is a lecture given last year by the noted Harper-hater Gwynne Dyer, whose articles in the prairie dog never cease to entertain me. The lecture likely aimed to have a fair and balanced civil discourse regarding western foreign policy in the Middle East, but it doesn’t take much imagination to assume the lecture devolved into a Conservative-bashing left-wing love affair.
RPIRG’s recent slogan is “transforming apathy into action”. Political apathy is a good thing in society. It means you are well governed and you can direct your energy to more fruitful activities. After all, there are more dimensions to civil society than academia – though any prolonged period of time in the ivory towers can lead you to believe otherwise.
One of Thomas Jefferson’s nuggets of wisdom comes to mind: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” It seems RPIRG is only concerned with mobilizing interest against Canada’s right-wing. I’m sure we can allocate our $61,350 to better use.