Rather, there’s something commendable about O’Leary’s brazen bullheadedness: the unwincingness of the anti-government, pro-business, stalwartly capitalist worldview he espouses as a yapping head on CBC’s Dragon’s Den and Lang & O’Leary Exchange. Where the rest of us might grapple with our beliefs on a second-by-second basis, O’Leary is unswervingly and frustratingly confident in his belief that freedom – that is, human freedom – is equivalent to financial freedom.
Yesterday, O’Leary hosted a media preview of his new photo exhibit, Kevin O’Leary, 40 Years Of Photography. A selection of photo prints by O’Leary curated in a gallery space at First Canadian Place, tucked behind a Starbucks and a Harry Rosen.
The exhibition draws from a personal collection of some 70,000 photos taken over the course of O’Leary’s life, from his travels in business and in television, the spoils of all his (financial) freedom. There are pictures of beaches and ice floes and Jim Morrison’s graffiti’d-up grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, prints of which will set you back between $5,000 and $6,000 apiece. It’s the kind of stuff you might expect to find hanging up in the lobby of a big bank or in a wealthy person’s vestibule, proudly displayed by the sort of person who might find value in owning “an O’Leary.”
The kicker: all profits from sales of the photo prints go to a charity established by O’Leary to fund teenage entrepreneurs. He claims to have netted $70,000 in sales before the show has even opened to the public.
O’Leary’s charitable effort seems, on paper, admirable. Who’s going to chide someone for raising money to stimulate the ambitions of self-starting young kids? (Provided those young kids aren’t impassioned 14 year-olds protesting GMOs, in which case O’Leary’s more likely to railroad them as “shills.”)
“I think there are many kids in grade 11 and 12 who have made the decision that they want to be an entrepreneur,” O’Leary told us after the tour. “I’m not putting any covenance on the use of the capital. They can put it toward an education, they can start a business, they can do whatever they like with it. If they’re smart, they’ll think wisely about it. It’s not easy to make $5,000. But it’s easy to spend it.”
In O’Leary’s estimation, the $5,000 isn’t so much an investment as a gift. It’s charity, pure and simple. He even posits these young upstarts as part of some discernible class of person, belonging to their own Randian echelon.
“When I speak at high schools,” O’Leary says, “It’s clear to me which kids are extremely focused: on business, on entrepreneurialism, on starting a business, on the pursuit of freedom – which is what they want, they want to be wealthy. I’m getting pretty good at recognizing them…We’ll gift the right ones.”
O’Leary’s alleged ability to eyeball the future vanguards of Canadian entrepreneurialism seems hilarious, given the whole context of the charity, i.e. the photo show. During the tour of the gallery, he mentioned that before becoming a businessman, venture capitalist and CBC star, he worked as a film editor. Then, as he noted, his life took a different path. O’Leary isn’t giving young people the opportunity to find their own path. He’s defining that path, modeling high school freshman and seniors in his own image. He even calls the “charity” the “Future Dragon Fund.”
Charity is often viewed as an estimable offshoot of capitalism, an illustration that capitalism and humanism can exist harmoniously. The capitalist has no obvious duty to perform charitable acts, but he does so to prove his own gallantry and esteem, and that of the system that he daily perpetuates. Charity serves as proof-positive that capitalism can engage in something that is not capitalism – something that is the exact opposite of capitalism, i.e. the willing handing-over of money – and so illustrates that capitalism has a will, a soul, a conscience, etc. These are the veils that capitalism hides behind.
“Charity,” Oscar Wilde noted, “creates a multitude of sins…It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” So O’Leary’s $5,000 donations aren’t just gifts. They’re investments: if not in the individual teenage entrepreneurs, then in the continued existence of financial capitalism. It’s like remedying a disease with more of that same disease.
To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, through the capitalist act of charity, people like O’Leary are buying redemption from being only a capitalist, in much the same way Starbucks’ rhetoric about their Shared Planet program releases from the guilt of the consumerist act of purchasing coffee at Starbucks. The quelling of your conscience is embedded in the price of the commodity, and in the system of the exchange of commodities, itself.
Of course the thing about O’Leary is how boldly transparent he makes all this seem. He has no capitalist guilt, no conscience that needs to be quelled. His photo show and its tie-in charity is essentially a farce, as laughable as the idea of paying $5,000 for a print of a photo of a defaced Jim Morrison bust, hanging it your home, and calling it art. All under the guise that, in O’Leary’s words, you’re “supporting an initiative.” All under that most insidious guise that it’s All About The Kids.