The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

A Woman For All Time

Posted on May 21, 2018

She has this particular day named after her, but so few us know much about Queen Victoria.  Given that this a holiday named after her remarkable identity and reign, that’s just a bit embarrassing.

Though she had much to say about the prospects for, and station of, women that would likely infuriate the average feminist of today, her life and accomplishments are virtually unmatched in history.  A woman exercising remarkable power in an age where men primarily dominated every important aspect of life and influence, it’s worthwhile for us to spend a bit of time getting to know her better, this woman whose prominence got most of us the day off.

Prior to becoming queen, Victoria faced a difficult upbringing. After losing her father to pneumonia when she was only 8 months old, she was virtually locked away in Kensington Palace under rigorous adult supervision.  Her schooling was private and hard, emphasizing both moral and intellectual pursuits.  There was virtually no time to spend with other children and she spent every waking moment being accompanied by one or more adults.  The pleasures and delights of childhood were never to be hers and later in life she reminisced: “I led a very unhappy life as a child and did not know what a happy domestic life was.”  Those difficult years affected her character and, though surely difficult, provided her with outstanding toughness and intuition.

When she became queen at 18 years of age, Victoria was already remarkably intelligent, spoke several languages and held a firm grasp of history, especially that of Europe.  Though people were required to show her deference, few expected much of this younger, shy woman.  Her advisers anticipated that she would prove to be a weak ruler who would simply hold place until someone stronger came along.  That she would live to be England’s longest serving monarch until just recently might have shocked them.  She refused to defer to her advisors, surprised all the skeptics, and developed a remarkably strong will that some saw as stubbornness but others viewed as essential to be a great monarch.  She rose to the occasion, quickly learning the intricacies of statecraft and diplomacy, and even at that young age began building a legacy that could never quite be matched.

Victoria looked to her own private pursuits for inspiration. She always painted and sketched and her writing was prolific.  She wrote daily journals that eventually took up 120 volumes and authored two books about travelling in the Scottish Highlands.  She took to self-education naturally, perhaps making up for those childhood moments she was denied in her earlier life.  Her early reign was characterized by bouts of laughter and entertainment.  She especially loved Scottish music and dancing.

Her personal life took a warm turn when she married Prince Albert. They enjoyed 20 romantic and adventurous years together, during which they had nine children.  Sadly, Albert suddenly took sick and died from typhoid when he was 42, leaving Victoria disconsolate.  She was never the same.  While a middle-aged woman of remarkable powers and insights, grief was her constant companion since her husband’s loss.  She was a fully human woman in deep pain, withdrawing from public life and taking on elaborate mourning rituals that would go on for years.  She was so consumed by her sense of loss and personal pain that she fell into a state of depression that lasted years.  She neglected her royal duties, was rarely seen in public, and slowly lost her popularity.  Her subjects, never seeing their Queen anymore, grew in their disgruntlement of her royal income.  When Victoria finally re-emerged in the 1870s, she remained a deeply pained woman who nevertheless understood her responsibility to her people and the empire.

The re-kindling of her people’s affection brought a sense of consolation back into her life.  She was so comforted by their support that she told one friend, “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”  Despite a grief that would last to the end, Victoria saw in her people a remarkable ability to overcome trial, to forge themselves in a resolute nation, and to turn their industry and hard work into a global economic force.  She believed in them in the way that few politicians do today.

We know of her days of empire and the remarkable enlightenment that ran through the British people during her lengthy reign.  In a modern era where critics abound, she hasn’t escaped becoming the target of an activist scourge.  Yet she was a woman far ahead of her time, possessed of gifts that made her a true feminine champion in a masculine era.  And she was tough, having survived a difficult childhood, at least 6 assassination attempts, the loss of the love of her love, and the passing of some of her children.  She could always see the bigger picture, commenting once that, “Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”

Victoria stands as one of the great and towering figures of history – a woman of her time but also of all time.  Today is called “Victoria Day” for a reason.  Canada has understood her importance even to our own history and development.  If we are going to enjoy a holiday today, we might as well understand something of the remarkable woman who is its cause.

National Geographic photo of the Japanese Anu people (1880)

Lost for Words

Posted on May 17, 2018

Grief can be a fickle thing.  The loss of someone close to us can throw us into periods of personal darkness and pain for months, even years.  Human beings have remarkable capacity of bearing such things.

Thanks to modern technology, we are aware that literally dozens of species are going extinct every day and a rate at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate.  Yet other than a little flutter of concern, we carry on as though such a reality doesn’t exist.  That’s one of those ironic things about living in affluence: we are more aware but less concerned of such things than ever.  And unlike those mass extinction events that occur occasionally in history, these current extinction rates are caused by only one species on those planet – us.

Less known is the permanent loss of languages that occur regularly.  For humans, language is everything.  It’s how we communicate, think, suffer, celebrate and carry on our daily routines. Without a capacity to put things in words, life has little else for us.

In 2007, linguists informed the world that of the 7,000 languages spoken today, nearly half are in danger of extinction and will disappear in the next few decades.  That rate is now increasing, with a language falling out of use at a rate of one every two weeks. Some fade away at the death of the last surviving speaker of a language, but the majority inevitably vanish from living in bilingual cultures in which one language becomes dominant because of its use in school, in business and in the entertainment industry.

Recent research has helped us determine what regions are most at risk.  There are five of them and their location might surprise you – Central South America, Northern Australia, North America’s upper Pacific coast (including British Columbia), Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States.  What they all have in common is the occupation by aboriginal people speaking diverse languages but in decreasing numbers.

A joint study between National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages revealed that more than half of these endangered languages have “no written form and are vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” The study notes that these languages leave no dictionaries when they pass into oblivion, no text, no records of accumulated knowledge or history of the culture as it vanishes.

As profound as this is, it contains a deeper meaning for us when we realize just how little we really care about the loss of languages that have been with us for millennia.  According to UNESCO research, between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct and one-third of the world’s remaining languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. They conclude with a real kicker: 50 to 90% of our remaining languages will disappear by next century.

Trying to keep an indigenous language from being lost in BC

It should trouble us to learn that languages face an extinction rate that exceeds that of birds, animals, fish or plants and that the cause of such a loss is again rooted in the practices of the human species. Globalization has shaped us into a planet where dominance becomes oppressive – wealth, military might, culture and, yes, language.  For much of these last two centuries, dominant cultures have imposed language on indigenous people, frequently through coercion, and in places like coast British Columbia with devastating results.  And factors like climate change and urbanization force linguistically diverse and rural communities to migrate and assimilate to new communities with new languages.

Some reading this data will merely shrug, saying that, though it’s sad in its own way, it is the price of progress and adaptation.  Maybe, but it’s the fact that we tolerate such extinctions with little thought that is the most troubling portent for humanity.  It’s not the reality and scale of such loss that should haunt us, but our apparent indifference to it all.  Lose a language and you also lose an identity, a history, a personality and an ability to face the future with the learned lessons of the past.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” penned Ludwig Wittgenstein.  But what happens when language disappears altogether?  Our world is gone, replaced by some globalized and artificial culture that carries little of our past and virtually nothing of our shared history. It forms one of our greatest crimes against our indigenous people, but perhaps greater still is that we tolerate this development with little true thought of what it means.

Rolling the Dice

Posted on May 15, 2018

My city of London, Ontario is in the midst of a gambling debate, with some feeling our collective future could be at risk should a larger casino be built near the centre of town.  That’s likely a little dramatic since a slots casino has been with us for years.

But the world itself has changed and key to it all is the difference in attitudes towards gambling inter-generationally.  Regardless of whether the casino is approved, attitudes regarding its presence in our midst are already going through a substantial shift.

New research is telling us something important about how gambling is being perceived.  Here’s just a sample of what’s been discovered:

  • While gambling remains popular with older generations, Millennials (1980-2000) take a far dimmer view of the practice, with only half of the numbers the older generations support.
  • The Millennial generation has now grown larger than the Boomers and are about to promote their values on everything, including the practice of gambling and gaming.
  • Millennials value drinking activities far more than Boomers.
  • 44% of Millennials play the slots, while 72% of all the other age groups participate.
  • More Millennials say they would play the slots if there was more of a challenge as opposed to random chance.
  • Millennials like the amenities of drinking, entertainment and dancing that most often accompany casinos, but not the practice of gambling itself.

Las Vegas understands this last point well enough, with one gambling consultant noting that, “A new breed of visitor is showing up in Vegas … to enjoy the good rooms, food, and shows, but – and this is where it hurts – not to gamble.”  They are more interested in their tech gadgetry than the slots.  This explains why, as the dying off of older gamblers is having its effects at the tables and slots, the overall number of visitors to the resort hasn’t declined.

It’s intriguing to note that the above paragraph was from a news item written in Life magazine in 1955.   In other words, there was a time when Baby Boomers themselves shied away from gambling while enjoying the entertainment that went along with it. The “gadgetry” that so much fascinated them were their transistor radios, televisions and more portable cameras.

Does this mean that the Millennials will follow in the path of their predecessors that they complain about?  Possibly.  The number of Millennials frequenting institutions of gambling is steadily creeping up as they get older – just like the Boomers.  In another interesting irony, research is also revealing that the generations following the Millennials continually blame them for much of their lack of economic opportunity.  What goes around, comes around.

Why is gambling a divisive issue?  There are numerous responses to the question, but the most serious concerns addictions and poverty.  As Ross Simpson put it in last weekend’s London Free Press:

Then, there is the question of problem gambling. The rates for casino gamblers are much higher than OLG claims: 5.5 per cent of slots players are severe problem gamblers, as are 12.1 per cent of table game players. About three times more will be “moderate severity” problem gamblers.

Using London’s population and provincial gambling participation rates, the proposed casino will generate an estimated 23,307 high and moderate severity problem gamblers.  Spouses and children will add an additional 55,936 family members potentially affected by problem gamblers.

Gambling is just one of the temptations that go with an affluent society, where people either have the funds to survive the casino and the social supports to assist them in their continual losses.  People in desperately poor countries enjoy no such pleasures on a systemic scale.  Playing anything can be a delightful thing, but not when it causes the person to trade their necessities for the trite and wasteful.

There are likely lessons to be learned here – personal, professional, social and moral. With a world increasingly at odds with ethical behaviour, it is of little advantage to pursue a practice that tosses away wealth at the very moment average citizens are losing enough of it to the 1%.  “A gambler never makes the same mistake twice,” notes Terrence Murphy.  “It’s usually three or more times.”  Learning proves to be a difficult thing in such a setting and now isn’t the time to be rolling the dice on a practice we have yet to come to terms with..

Photo credit: from Burning Man

And So It Goes

Posted on May 10, 2018

Over the period of two years, after Canadian Mark Carney left his post as the head of the Bank of Canada to take on the prestigious role as Bank of England governor, it was like he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The global economy continued on its roller coaster journey at the same time that global wealth was nesting comfortably within the management of less than 1 per cent of the population.

Carney was deemed a typical mild-mannered Canadian who would bring a sense of stability. So when he was asked to speak at England’s prestigious Guild Hall to the country’s elites no one was expecting anything out of the ordinary.. They should have been better prepared.

He surprised everyone when he launched into his view of how capitalism itself is at risk. “Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself,” he offered at the beginning of his speech, to which the room grew deathly quiet.

Carney talked about how the affluent nations had subtly morphed from being market economies to market societies and how that fundamentally changed everything. He said he worried about the “mistrust” that was clearly growing between citizens and the global financial order..

Carney reminded his audience that six years after the economic crisis of 2007, the core problem remained, with little desire among the financial elites to remedy it. And the longer they took to address it, the more populists movements were growing, both in developing and developed nations, and they were getting increasingly angry. What else should we expect, he argued, “when bankers make enormous sums, while taxpayers pick up the tab for their failures.”

Governor Carney closed by stating that human beings matter. He found it ironic that in an age that has seen poverty getting better in the developing world there has also been a spread of new poverty in the affluent nations. He concluded with the belief that it is the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world, and capitalism itself.

Two years later, Mark Carney spoke at another meeting of England’s elite, only this time his theme was different.  Climate change was an immediate threat to financial system, he argued, and corporations, even small and medium-sized businesses, needed to acknowledge the risk immediately if the financial system was to avoid “catastrophic impact.”

The Bank of England governor challenged firms to do more to disclose their vulnerabilities.  What did that mean?  He informed bankers and insurers that they would need to provide more information about the risks they might face from climate change, Failure to do so would have damaging effects for financial stability.

The same finance industry that only a decade ago had helped to spur on the worst financial recession since the Great Depression had quickly returned to business as usual, even succeeding in helping get governments elected that oversaw further cutting in corporate tax rates and the dismantling of more cuts regulating the financial industry.  The result, Carney noted, as a deepening of the divide between rich and poor in the developed world, high rates of unemployment, and a growing disenchantment with the financial barons who enjoyed their expanding life of elitism while most citizens endured stagnant economies.  And then he threw down the gauntlet:

“The finance industry could be forced into making rapid adjustments if you don’t gradually expose where your climate change risks might lie, which could trigger steep losses, not only for your shareholders, but average citizens as well. The result could be chaos.  Given the uncertainties around climate, not everyone will agree on the timing or scale of the adjustments required … [but] the right information allows sceptics and evangelists alike to back their convictions with their capital.”

In other words, it could be 2007’s Great Recession all over again, only this time hordes of citizens and less-friendly governments would likely demand on severe regulatory restrictions on the finance system and perhaps even jail time for financial leaders.

Instead of leaving his audience sullen and guarded, the governor made a suggestion: create growing opportunities for firms to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy. He said new technology investments and long-term infrastructure projects would need to be financed at roughly quadruple the current rate and they had the resources to do it when governments or their citizens didn’t.

As with the speech a couple of years earlier to the same crowd, Carney sat down following prophetic utterances that not only showed his human grasp of capitalism, but served as a warning that if economies are all about money and not people, then there is no way out of our present financial mess.

The following week, business magazines, conservative newspapers, corporate social media accounts, and even the spokespersons for bond and stock markets subtly panned Carney’s warnings.  A week later his challenge had sunk like a stone below the surface, the ripples fading away as though nothing had happened.  And so it goes … and so the worst comes.

Business people standing in interview queue

Where Are We Headed Exactly?

Posted on May 8, 2018

Recently I spoke to a group of business leaders on the subject of “wealth and social policy.”  The audience consisted of sincere women and men who had grown concerned that with titanic amounts of wealth being generated in the developed world, little was changing for those whose lives remain in economic stagnation and whose prospect for gainful employment recedes each successive year.  In all of this, governments themselves seemed particularly ineffective.

In my city of London, Ontario, recent research revealed that 48% of our workforce is either in precarious or vulnerable work conditions, with little in the way of benefits, pensions, or even a future.  It is a reality that begs the obvious question: if all the wealth is resulting in such little meaningful work, what exactly are we doing?  Sadly, while many declare the merits of this tax scheme or that social program, few wish to stop for a moment, survey the economic and social landscape, and question the very premise of our modern economies.  Put another way, without work, where do people find their meaning and where do societies find their true worth?

Below is an excerpt from a book I wrote a couple of years ago, titled Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.  One of those sins he highlighted carried the heading “Wealth Without Work.”  This is now where we are, and without work our productive future is no longer secure.  The very rationale for our modern economy is suspect as a result.

 


 

Fast-forward to today and we can see the result of money shedding the last vestiges of its moral accountability, especially to community. When hard work was extolled as a virtue, a person’s reputation was often based on his or her performance within a community context.  Diligent toil was noted and appreciated.  It spoke to ethical character, a disciplined spirit, and a responsibility to the greater life.  The Protestant Work Ethic wasn’t merely about diligence but character, relating success to the desire to please God by working for a greater purpose and a broader world.  If one became wealthy in the process, it was seen as a benediction of the Divine on the exploits of the worker.

Today, the image of the wealthy is largely framed through notoriety, fame, and media coverage.  The wildly successful capitalists of today (if capitalist is indeed the appropriate word) seek celebrity more than esteem from the community.  There are exceptions, but they are rare.  In a very real way they want to be envied as opposed to respected.  Success in modern society has to be ratified by publicity, not the community.

In a world where the possession of wealth is more important than how it was acquired, it no longer is of consequence what methods were used to accumulate riches.  Many of the world’s top millionaires and billionaires are decent and diligent people who often practice philanthropy.  The particular manner in how they raised their money is never as important as the fact that they possess it.  Our modern world is now faced with the uncomfortable reality that much of this wealth came from cheap labour, or the avoidance of taxes, and much has produced environmental harm.  Eugene Victor Debs watched all this unfold and made a prescient observation:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Ironically, Debs made this statement in 1920, when capitalism was gaining its untold wealth through the process of cheap labour.  One wonders what he would think of globalization today and its penchant for moving manufacturing around the globe to wherever the labour costs, environmental standards and commitment to core communities are lowest.

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