The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

How Grief Defines and Ennobles Us

We all reach a stage in life when grief and a sense of loss go from being sudden events to our constant companions. In numerous conversations in the last few weeks, I have been struck by just how many people are moving through the various stages of grief and seeking to infuse their own lives with meaning as they have come face to face with their mortality.

It seems to be happening at every level – from the loss of celebrity figures like David Bowie or Stuart Maclean in recent months, to those losing hope for peace in a troubled world. An entire generation of Baby Boomers has reached the age where they are saying gentle and painful farewells to parents in their final days. Suddenly tears seem something sacred and heartbreak leads to a sense of closeness.

Every day throughout our community such experiences are played out in ways most of us will never know. Like some kind of institution, grief is ever-present among us but goes unnoticed. Occasionally it catches us unaware, as when we spot a funeral procession on its way to the cemetery or when we spot the sad crescendo of tears by someone incapacitated outside the emergency room. It is in the darkened face of one on the edge of losing their faith in humanity because of all the conflicts, or the person who looks at an old photo album they haven’t open for years. In most cases, such events never make the news or rise to public consciousness but they nevertheless define the daily life of citizens and are therefore important.

There is always the tendency to wish grief to end, to release its dismal hold on our emotions. Yet it endures because we must always be reminded that for a time we had something special in our lives and our crying out in pain is but a reflection of just how valued that presence was. The tears are the down payment we pay for the ongoing memory of what we have lost and still treasure. It is just as the old Jewish proverb reminds us: “We fear to love what death can touch.” But once we overcome that fear and begin a relationship with someone that we value then it is inevitable that the pain will strike us when she or he is gone. And yet we do it – we continue to reach out for what inspires us. When we are young we don’t think about what we could lose; when we are older we can’t forget it.

Recently I reached out to a friend in Britain who had suffered an unexplainable loss. Endeavouring to be supportive, I sent some words of encouragement. She wrote me back with an anonymous quote that spelled grief out for me in a fashion I will never forget:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Love with no place to go.” Most of us endure this each day and yet continue on because, really, what can we do? We can’t bring what we treasured back to us. We understand that grief loses some of its intensity over time, but we never overcome the longing. We feel the loss deeply because that person once stretched our minds and our spirits to new heights and depths. Our grief is a reminder that their memory is yet with us, stirring our emotions, and encouraging us to get on with life. Just as knowledge builds the mind and exercise strengthens the body, grief uniquely ennobles our soul and spirit.

All those who grieve are baptized into the fragility of all that is human. And yet the pain’s presence in our lives is but a reminder that, in some unexplainable way, what we have lost is yet with us. Our grief is the price we pay for the privilege of having that person still present within us even though they are gone. They yet whisper in our ear, arouse our spirits and not just our memories, reminding us that we not only loved them deeply but that we were capable of getting beyond ourselves and embracing a greater life. Their presence in our lives through grief means we can still perform that remarkable act of transformation.

Progress in War Outpacing Efforts for Peace

This post can also be read in the Huffington Post here.

 

In the modern era, the abiding belief has always been that war and conflict were vestiges of the past and that peace was the progressive option for moving humanity into a more secure future. That sentiment is now under assault.

It’s troubling to think that armed conflict is in a more progressive mode than peace initiatives at the moment. While the great wars have all but disappeared in the new Millennium, regional conflicts have emerged with a troubling vengeance. The death casualties in these conflicts have grown so high that many are talking about the potential for these regional conflicts to rival the sheer human cost of the great wars of the past century, especially among civilians. Consider the African continent alone, where millions have died in the Congo, both Sudans, Nigeria, and Algeria, among others. In 2014, Africa experienced more than half of worldwide conflicts despite having only 16% of the world’s population. The revelation that African conflicts are actually on a gradual decline does little to assuage the sense that the casualties of such conflicts are unacceptably high.

When one adds the sheer human cost in lives in Syria, Iraq, and other countries in those regions, there is the growing sense that war is overtaking peace as the default method for how countries interact with their neighbours. And the larger scale saber rattling of the larger players in recent months – Russia, North Korea, Iran, a more bellicose America – threatens to resuscitate the Cold War, which we thought had ended only three decades ago.

War is quickly becoming more “progressive” than peace due to rapid advances in technology. High-tech intelligence gathering techniques, drones, laser-guided missiles, advanced fighter jets and bombers flown almost exclusively by computers, night vision weapons for both the ground and the air, or even the lower-grade but steadily advancing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by homegrown terrorist – such weapons of conflict represent serious new threats to the new era of peace that billions had hoped for only two decades ago.

Against all this the question must be asked: is peace truly able to keep up with these renewed forms of warfare? Certainly, great efforts are made each day by NGOs and the United Nations to develop more sophisticated methods for pursuing peace. Perhaps the primary activity at the moment is the development of women’s programs around the world since statistics are increasingly making the case that the greater the involvement of women in leadership roles in troubled areas the less likely will armed conflict become the default response to any kind of disagreement.

Environmental efforts to sustain water supplies, the development of more durable crops, increased opportunities for education, and enhanced legal efforts to restrain the spread of used weaponry around the world, are all vital and must be pursued with greater vigor. Yet the sense remains, much of it insidious, that war, in all its facets, is making a resurgence.

Humanity is now facing the two great questions it has historically confronted for thousands of years: is peace worth it and will we pay the cost to sustain it? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the first is unsustainable without the second. We slide back into conflict the moment we fail to fight for peace. Shakespeare worried about it in his time, saying that peace was “naked, poor and mangled.” As long as we keep it in such a condition it can never prevail. By always making peace about security instead of the building of a strong civil society we have left ourselves without the tools and empowered citizens required to put peaceful impulses in the very sinews of society, not just its border regions.

Not all that long ago, peace was viewed as the occasional pause that occurred between long lists of conflicts. If we aren’t careful we will soon be in danger of replicating such a timeline. Peace becomes an investment in what we can accomplish; war morphs into everything that we can lose. As long as peace remains under the influence of generals, politicians, even bureaucrats, it will forever be traded off in favour of others pursuits.

The time has come for peace to be democratized – the place where citizens themselves infuse peace itself with humanity instead of statistics, weapons, and endless angling for advantage. “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding,” wrote Albert Einstein. We have yet to truly learn that lesson, and until we do, the temptation for conflict will always remain our steady companion.

Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.

 

History’s Most Troubling Chapter

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.


Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation.
The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity’s troubling journey towards peace and security.

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