The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Parkland Students - on democracy's cusp

17 Minutes That Could Change Democracy

Posted on March 20, 2018

True, the raw emotion of it has worn off somewhat, but not its memory – never the memory.  The sight of fearful students rushing out of Parkland Douglas school in Florida was, in truth, all too familiar an image on our screens – we’d seen it all before.  Problem was that all that collective angst, the outpouring of emotion and support, sympathetic news coverage that occurred in other states in other times had come to the same end – nothing.  It’s likely millions watching it all unfold thought the Parkland shooting would be little different.  It seemed like nothing could shake lukewarm or belligerent politicians, a cold and immovable organized gun lobby, or a media that diligently covered the story until they didn’t and it faded away.

But that was when the adults were in charge of the response.  All that changed on the scheduled day of mourning, when 17 minutes was set aside by Parkwood school for grieving over the loss – a minute for each life taken.  The problem was that these students refused to take part in a grief organized by a formula.  They chafed while standing there, believing their grief should have positive outcomes instead of respectful resignation.

Meanwhile students at the Westglades Middle School adjacent to Parkland refused to comply. One student broke through security (there to protect the students), followed almost immediately by many others.  They were heading to a place where a public rally was to be held.  Watching all this transpire, the Parkland students, clearly laden with grief, nevertheless followed the younger students to the rally.

We all know what transpired in the hours before and after the incident, but what is important is that while the adults attempted to digest the horror of what happened, the students felt the need to act.  But they did more.  Deeply moved, they committed themselves to taking on the higher powers in the land – the state legislature, the president himself, and, of all groups, the National Rifle Association.  This had been done before in other locations, of course, but something was different about these students: they weren’t merely looking to grieve, but instead wanted system change.

These were citizens, old and young, teachers and students, parents and kids, and they had taken 17 minutes reserved for grief and turned it into something far longer, more sustained, with an edge, and with an organizational capacity that caught even seasoned politicians off-guard.  The elected representatives thought they knew how to handle the grief of adult constituents, but when students showed up, well-versed in their arguments, cogent in pressing for legislation, and calling for a new future, the powers that be had come up against a democratic force for which they weren’t prepared.  The media proved invaluable in these moments.

There is a moral in this series of events, and it’s for the adults – all of us who call ourselves citizens.  It was simply this: the young frequently view the world more as it should be than what their guardians pretend it to be.  America believes in religion, fiercely so, and should grasp the principle.  The great prophet Isaiah told of the world all people were seeking, where violence would end, the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and children could be leaders in a world where they could be secure. “A child will lead them,” was the way the scripture put it, leaving adults to smile in condescension.

The problem with the Florida students is that they reached out into that future and dragged it into the present, forcing decision makers to stop the charade and get on with the true purpose of power, which is to create a safer and more equal world.  And it wasn’t just Florida, as students and others from across the country not only rallied for their peers in Rockland but for the better world they sought.  In such a world, 17 minutes is a hugely insufficient time to change the course of events, but in this remarkable student set of actions it was enough to get us started.

A Different Path

Posted on March 18, 2018

Fifty years ago  this past week (March 16, 1968), Robert Kennedy announced he would be running for president in the same Senate Caucus Room his brother had made his announcement eight years earlier.  We all know how it ended, but few recognized the personal transformation he went through during that brief campaign.

Ironically, RFK chose an opposite path to most of today’s politicians, opting to migrate from a place of attack and negativity to one of hope, social justice and a sense of ethical responsibility.  True, he had frequently been somewhat moralistic earlier in his career, but it always seemed to propel him into attack mode, especially against corruption and greed.  He became his JFK’s watchdog as his attorney general in his relentless pursuit of evil.

But following his brother’s tragic death something changed in him.  He commented to friends that all of his negative announcements were turning people off of government and hope altogether and that if he was going to run for president himself he wanted a different message.  He found his passion in a morally uplifting campaign against poverty, racism and war.  In a brief 82-day contest he had reversed himself and chose to give American hopes instead of hatred.  It was to become a campaign for the ages before an assassin’s bullet in a Los Angeles hotel ended it all.

In a transformational period of only a few weeks, Robert Kenney reminded his listeners that ethics and moral accountability weren’t just about fighting against the wrong but living and proclaiming lives of righteous hope and the elevation of all people to a better life.  He who had mastered the politics of attack now donned the cloak of atonement, reminding his country that they had a rendezvous  with destiny, one that sought fairness and equality instead of fear and extremism.

Fifty years later we are now more aware of his weaknesses yet remain remarkably blind to his personal transformation from cynic to champion, from merely a man to a messenger for social justice.  He concluded, for instance, that moral courage was more rare than courage in battle and was the essential quality for those wishing to change their world to a fairer place.  He became a full example of that in is fighting against the poverty that was cheapening America and shaming it before the world, just as he did against the racism that had divided the country almost to the breaking point.

Robert Kennedy gave up the easier route of going into attack mode and took to proposing a more humble and fair America.  In so doing, he drew an entirely new generation of young people, tired of the same old negative political strife, into the political process.  It was a muscular philosophy, one established on ethical principle as opposed to excessive politics.  He believed in the ardour of religious faith over an empty kind of nihilism, of generations working together for the sake of justice, and a politics that worked for everyone and not just the elites.

We can’t know how he would have worked out his vision had he obtained power, but this we do understand: in a turbulent age rife with anger and division, he reversed himself from a leader of harsh justice to one of hopeful redemption of an entire country in its reach for greatness.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation” – Robert Kennedy

That transformation of a single leader who gave hope to a generation sends a clear message to today’s political order – bash away all you want, but if you can’t build a more hopeful age, step aside and give others a crack at it.  If you place your party and power over people and principle, transfer to some other line of work.  It’s one thing to achieve political power and another entirely to use it to lift everyone.  Robert Kennedy never lived to achieve it, but left instead a foreshadowing of politics as it could be in an angered era.  It remains with us today, reminding us to pursue ethics over extremism, hope over hatred, people over power, meaning over money and inclusion over inflexibility.

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Tribes. Tribes. Tribes.

Posted on March 15, 2018

It’s all worked out pretty much as they said – three books that predicted the madness of American politics.

  • Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, by Geoffrey Kabaservice
  • The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, by Mike Lofgren
  • It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collide With the Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein

It’s interesting to note how long these titles are, almost as if the subject matter is far too great and complex for a simple phrase.  But what’s even more telling is when they were written.  Though they adequately describe the turbulence of American politics today, they were, in fact, written just prior to Obama’s last term as president.

In other words, the political decline has been going on long before Donald Trump was elected, and in each of these works much of the blame has been partially placed on the media for failing to do its proper job.

All of this is now bubbling to the surface in Washington, to the point where some pundits question whether democracy itself can be reclaimed from the bedlam.  Donald Trump isn’t sticking to the conservative Republican policies that helped get him elected.  Republicans themselves have likewise become unmoored from their historic principles.  And Democrats have been so focused on Trump and identity politics that they have lost sight of the full inclusiveness of all that they once maintained and fought for.  With the Republicans so focused on getting re-elected and the Democrats fixated with Trump instead of enlightened policies to assist the average citizen, the democratic hole is only going to get deeper.  American politics is remarkable versatile,  but belief in its efficacy is now at all time lows.

Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan put down some profound thoughts on how tribalism is ruining politics.  It’s something every citizen in every democratic nation must become aware of us … and avoid.

But then we don’t really have to wonder what it’s like to live in a tribal society anymore, do we? Because we already do. Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).

I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.

I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.

Letting Our Cities Take Flight

Posted on March 13, 2018

“It is always easy to create an ordinary city; what is difficult is to create an extraordinary one, peaceful and restful one, smart and tidy, artful and cultivated one.  In short, a livable one,” wrote Mehmet Murat ildan.

It makes sense, seems perfectly plausible, and for committed citizens and good politicians should be doable.  Yet many Canadian cities are having trouble achieving it.  Those that struggle inevitably compare themselves to other municipalities elsewhere that seem to have their act together and lament that we lack the resources, leadership or innovation to replicate such success.  There’s a lot of that going around these days in this country, especially among mid-sized cities.

Since my time as a member of parliament in Ottawa a number of years ago I have wondered if a huge part of the difficulty for Canadian cities is that they don’t really factor that much in our form of federalism.  They can’t really raise taxes the way the province or the feds can.  They are constantly encumbered by rules established by senior jurisdictions.  Even though 80% of Canadians now live in cities, they still have to humble themselves before their senior political cousins to beg for the right to be what they believe they can be.

In short, cities are distant participants in our federalism and in our constitutional arrangements.  When Canada’s founding BNA Act was drafted and implemented, only 1 in 10 citizens lived in urban settings.  Since cities and towns weren’t prevalent, their care was assigned to the provinces by the federal government.  Cities only received a brief nod by our founding fathers.  Modern Canada no longer looks anything like that, yet when it comes to those places where most citizens now live the old rules still apply, leaving our cities incapable to taking full advantage of the innovation and creativity available to cities in other lands.

Sure, for over a century the structure of our jurisdictional authority worked fairly well in Canada.  But that was before the world turned upside down through immigration, globalization, the free movement of capital and goods, and the incessant movement of people to cities.  Now it is our larger communities, in which are housed most of the talent and creativity, institutional strength and ability to generate economy and collective compassion, that have the capacity to lead Canada into this new, more complex world.  Call it the culture of indifference.  True, provinces and Ottawa and waking up to the advantages, power, creativity and diversity, but it’s not enough.

All of this puts Canada troublingly out of step with the rest of the advancing world, without a solid federal urban strategy, and with provincial governments freely playing communities against one another in pursuit of their own purposes, especially the concentric circles that gather around places like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

We are long past the time when we must configure new arrangements of power – ones that prepare us to better face a fast-paced world but which also bring out the best in human, institutional and technological resources residing in each city.  Perhaps then cities can be resourced enough to create their own future instead of just envying others.  Without such shifts in power, cities will always remain caged within a bureaucracy long past its due date.

The Growing Darkness

Posted on March 11, 2018

It’s a life of episodes — perhaps a fitting way of describing life with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s one thing to lose your health, your job or a loved one, but what happens when you lose yourself? Is there an individual or family tragedy any greater?

And yet it’s lived out every day by thousands of Londoners and most of us will never know about it until signs emerge somewhere within our intimate circle.

In London some 9,000 families wear themselves out in silence at an agony that can rip one’s insides out. Across Canada, almost half a million citizens suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Within 15 years that number will reach one million. Globally, 100 million struggle with the disease — a number that will reach 300 million by the end of this century.

As populations age, dementia cases grow exponentially, primarily affecting those over the age of 65.

These are numbers that hardly tell the story. Alzheimer’s, for everything else it is, is the slow unravelling of a life — or at least the memory of it — until that existence itself has expired. The data, the science, the policies — these all, vital as they are, fail to plumb the depth of humanity in such situations or the personal journeys families go through.

Every aspect of dementia includes exhaustion, both for patients and families. It’s one thing for a person to withdraw into a world no one understands, but the inability to reach into that world and ease the passage is a reality of exquisite sadness. To watch someone you’ve known, perhaps deeply loved, move into a kind of exclusive fog and then darkness is a tragedy that would challenge Shakespeare’s ability to describe it.

Having the seven descending stages of dementia explained by professionals constitutes its own form of foreboding; knowing of the steps into darkness, while instructive, hardly prepare us for the tribulations of the journey.

We slowly watch our friend or loved one drift away like some great ship hoisting anchor and moving off over the horizon. The sheer pathos of watching a vibrant life, a beautiful mind, lose its way leaves us with an overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness.

The person suffering dementia and the supporting system that surrounds her increasingly fragile life effectively live in two worlds. There are those times when the person is present, lucid and aware, only to be followed by that growing number of occasions when memory is gone and reaching through to consciousness is difficult.

Each stage of decline builds on the next, causing an increasing sense of confusion. The devolving cycle of care is endless — locking doors to protect from injury, administering medication, bathing, assistance on the toilet, the occasional violent response of the loved one to physical assistance, and the increasing loss of memory. It’s the aging process without the ability to really come to terms with it.

But is that really the best way to look at it, to describe what to us appears a journey into lostness?

Research and lessons learned are beginning to teach us that the person suffering from dementia isn’t so much disappearing as transforming, best seen in those moments of joy, smiling, dancing, laughing and remembering childhood.

Instead of worrying about the circumstances of life, the Alzheimer’s patient possesses the ability to live totally in the moment, free to enjoy, when possible, wherever their mind is at.

Families, friends and caregivers are increasingly learning to treasure such times instead of always trying to summon the person back to the present. They discover effective and more intimate ways of assisting with the descent into darkness and learn to capture those shared moments of joy instead of feeling encompassed by sadness.

It is impossible to alter the patient’s ultimate destination, but we can attempt to cast off our own disillusionment and learn to enter into our loved one’s reality. As she reverts back into childhood, we must go with her, not only for her sake but our own.

They are moving into their true selves, what they were before life’s pressures and responsibilities weighed them down. Establishing their own reality, we must find our place within it instead of forcing them back into our own. Their self is still there, still alive, and we still must celebrate a life well lived.

It is a process of transformation for everyone, giving us something redemptive despite a disease that leaves so little of consciousness at its conclusion. As Helen Keller would put it: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.”

Such is the challenge of dementia.


Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

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