The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Labyrinth

Posted on April 26, 2018

The thing about rage only two decades into the 21stcentury is that it’s everywhere.  In past eras it brewed in turbulent hotspots – the Middle East, India-Pakistan, the Balkans, the Congo, Nicaragua, among others – usually far away and, in consequence, far from our minds.  But the individual and collective anger has spread to normally stable places around the globe – Germany, France, Norway, Britain and most obviously in the United States.

In his Meditations, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius cogently noted, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”  It seems to me that some are coming to terms with this observation.  The “age of rage” has been rolling on for years and the change which that kind of vexation is supposed to produce isn’t happening.  No matter who triumphs in the revolution or wins in the election, things overall seem to remain the same.  We’re starting to understand that seasons of anger frequently make us more miserable and ineffective – especially when nothing is altered as a result.

So, could it be that our representative democracies are in serious trouble due to our irascibility?  There’s little doubt  – not because the anger is so white-hot but because the conditions which produced that collective temper haven’t changed.  Bill Gates has been venting recently that we can expect another economic recession in the near future, perhaps more serious than 2007.  The moral of that story is that the financial sector learned little from that past colossal economic meltdown.  Taxpayers bailed out the economic managers in numerous countries back then and they’re now back doing largely what got them into trouble in the first place.

Little is happening regarding the increasing flow of refugees or the encroaching tidal wave of environmental catastrophe.  Middle-class wages remain stagnant.  Jobs continue to disappear.  Human rights injustices seem intractable.  And citizens everywhere are fed up.  Even in Canada the tensions between West and East regarding oil pipelines have threatened the very essence of harmony with provincial governments and, eventually, their federal counterpart.

With anger everywhere, solutions nowhere,and hundreds of millions looking for rescue from somewhere,collective anger has risen to new levels. The gentler voice of reason is growing rare, though in recent months fatigue with all that rage is causing some to seek something more measured.  French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, touring America in the 1800s spotted something that its own leaders were on to:

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Yet those points of tension are growing, not being healed, not just in the United States, but in the developed nations of the West that once viewed capitalism and neoliberalism as their ticket to a better, more prosperous future.    We haven’t repaired our abiding faults.

Many of us ventured forth into that quagmire with anger on our sleeves and impatience in our spirits and, in many cases, it was an impressive thing to witness or be a participant.  But we are now exhausted and more calloused from a universe of anger that feels more like a cul-de-sac than a way forward.

Sometimes the old Greek fables are instructive, as when Theseus, the founder of Athens, volunteered to walk into the great labyrinth to save the captives kept by the great and devilish Minotaur.  All the others who went in never came out, but Theseus, fueled with a sense of purpose prepared to enter the huge maze.  At the last minute a woman offered him a ball of yarn so that he could find his way back out.  And that’s just how it played out.  He defeated the Minotaur and followed the yarn back to safety.

At times our justified anger leads us into places from which there is no escape, just as Marcus Aeruleius predicted at the beginning of this post.  Anger without a path in and out never leads to progress, but a sense of frustration and ineffectiveness.  All too many times our fury drives away the very people we need for compromise and solutions.  Social justice is more impacted by collaboration than by anger.  Right now we don’t know how to get out of a democracy that has become furious and at times harbours more hatred than healing. Democracy was founded by the belief that civilization was a verb, not a noun, but now that we have all taken our inflexible stands there is nowhere to go.  We are trapped in a maze we partly helped to construct.  The anger that got us into this situation will never get us out.

A City’s Potential Stifled By Self-Doubt

Posted on April 24, 2018

The quote holds out hope for what a mid-sized city can become: “These cities have the potential to become leaders of sustainable and inclusive city-building initiatives across Canada.”

It’s posted on the website of Evergreen Canada, a group coming to London on May 15-16 to see if we can make the cut as a municipality dynamic enough to carve out a more prosperous and meaningful future for itself.

That Evergreen is coming to London at all, in co-operation with numerous local organizations, might be a sign that it values our potential, but it could just as well be a recognition that we are floundering enough as a community that we could use some outside help.

It’s tough in a country as spread out as our own to compete with the likes of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and their ability to generate economies, attract diverse workforces and display world-class amenities. Yet, compete we must, for — as Evergreen states — we run the risk of becoming backwater communities if we don’t.

London already knows what this feels like. Far from the confident claims we were making three decades ago, before the collapse of our major manufacturing base, we now spend a great deal of our time wondering how to recapture our edge.

There are those who feel the way ahead is to flaunt our advantages, yet their voice is easily matched by others who sense our best days of momentum are behind us.

We are a modern community that can house both viewpoints, but the longer we take to get our act together, the more a collective sense of unease sets in.

We are not alone in such a predicament. Most mid-sized cities face uncertain futures. But London is settling into a precarious period, where major initiatives potentially create significant divisions that can drown out other positive developments. At times, our politics get divisive, running the dangerous risk of local citizens turning off key policy initiatives and walking away from engagement. Some seeking office find it easier to declare what they are against instead of what they’re for. It gets discouraging after a time.

We continually find ourselves in predicaments where negative voices seek to derail initiatives that have been in the works for years: BRT, the London Plan and a supervised drug use site being the most high-profile examples. Whichever side one chooses in such cases, the nagging reality remains that most cities our size — Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, being the closest examples — moved ahead on these amenities years ago and benefited as a result.

Where London once used to lead, we now hover, afraid of risk and stubborn in our intransigence. We are fearful of whispering our dysfunction, lest it turn out to be true. In the process we have permitted a generational divide to carve our city into warring entities that sap our collective spirit.

These are neither fabrications nor permanent realities, but they are serious and, for now, debilitating.

Bill Barber, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, cogently noted: “It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.”

Finding that community is turning out to be a complex and protracted exercise. A globalized world has left us constantly adjusting in an effort to discover our place in all the confusion. If London is to find its groove, it can only be as a collective citizenry instead of merely self-directed individuals or a melee of activist groups.

We have to ask ourselves how cities like Hamilton, Halifax, Saskatoon and Kitchener-Waterloo managed to collectively find that sweet spot of learning to journey together into the future as opposed to striking off in all directions or enduring a citizenry facing off against one another.

And how can it be that, in a city in Southwestern Ontario possessed of powerful amenities (post-secondary institutions, medical centres, tech hubs, civil society organizations, and a talented human resource base), we remain disenchanted and mired in our own limitations?

It’s not all about politics or leadership. It’s about a people of spirit, dedicated to each other’s welfare and a collective future.

More columns are coming on mid-sized cities and their potential. In the meantime, go to evergreen.ca to learn about the upcoming events in London.

 

This post can be found in its original London Free Press format here

Our Shared Humanity

Posted on April 22, 2018

Born a few minutes apart, they had a scant 30 weeks together before the death of their mother in war wrenched them away from each other.  They were identical twins, sharing the mystery of human DNA, and they deserved to face the world together.  It was not to be.

Five years later, however, in a remarkable movement of destiny, they looked upon each other once again, confused at seeing their image so clearly represented on another face.  When informed they were twins, identical, they reached out, took the other’s hand, and wandered off to play soccer – hundreds of eyes on them lost in wonder.

Today, Abuk and Achan turn 18.  Jane and I have watched them grow up every day, etching their height on the door jamb to amaze ourselves at their progress.  Not alone in our guardianship, our community has watched over them as well, in everything from education, health, sports, music and dance, friendship, and above all, love and deep respect.

They have those wonderful moments we’ll never forget: how they finish each other’s sentences, practice their own unique form of language, laugh in ways that gather us into their joy, possess an unparalleled companionship and communicate without words.  Their similarities are a delight.

But perhaps not as much as their differences.  Abuk plays hockey; Achan’s a soccer girl. Achan works hard on her appearance every day; Abuk likes the athletic look.   One’s into coffee while the other sticks to water.  Abuk loves junk food; Achan not so much. They sometimes fight, though in silence and rarely in outright anger.  Whenever we witness these distinctions, we imagine both sides of their African mother’s nature emerging and we rejoice in the sense that her spirit is still alive and flourishing long after her passing.

Each of us have time distinctions in our relationships from being born at different times.  Not these two; with each other they are perfectly synced.  Mere minutes might separate their birth, but they were both conceived in that same magical instant one fertilized egg split in two, gifting them both with identical DNA.  When studies reveal that twins intuit and interact with one another while in their mother’s womb it makes perfect sense to us; we see it every day.

Like other twins, they get upset when others don’t see them as individuals and so they work hard to carve their own world out for themselves. Their rooms and clothes are totally different, as are their friends.  They chose to go to two separate high schools and seek two different careers.  They spend their days in separate lives.

But then they always, always, come back together.  It’s like the womb all over again – prodding, exploring, growing, learning, understanding.  Sometimes in those moments I weep, especially when considering what might have been if their African mother hadn’t possessed the courage to flee for safety with them or if their Canadian mom hadn’t possessed it in equal measure to struggle half a world away to bring them to safety.  This was a tale of two mothers who never met one another but whose remarkable efforts first birthed the twins and then brought them together across oceans and continents.  They would have been great friends, I believe.

It is a tale for the telling – a remarkable narrative that is as fine and moving as any you’ll encounter.  But it’s not fiction; it is instead a marvellous ode to the human spirit and the belief that God still works wonders in this world.  We are a home with three women and two men and we delight that we are more black than white.  And we have harmony and respect for each other.  It is human ignorance that separates the genders and races from one another in ways that are harmful.  If race or gender are human inventions designed to assert control, for us they are a gift to help us appreciate our equality and distinctions.

Today is their 18thbirthday and I’m sitting here, awake for hours, waiting to hear them come down the stairs and complete our worlds.  Abuk and Achan, at this moment I believe it’s impossible that my heart could contain any more love for you.  Happy Birthday … and thank you. You’re 18 and your world awaits.

Bringing It Home

Posted on April 20, 2018

Last week I attended an annual outdoor lunch that raises awareness over the state of homelessness in our city.  It’s a powerful mix of housing advocates, policy makers, media and most important of all, homeless individuals seeking a better world.

On the same day The Guardian published what turned out to be a timely piece titled, “Finland has found the answer to homelessness.  It couldn’t be simpler.”  It was the kind of headline meant to quickly draw the reader into its rationale that defeating homelessness isn’t perhaps as complex as we thought.

But first the bad news.  The article reminded its British readers that, whether they liked it or not, they were tolerating a homelessness situation that was becoming a national embarrassment:

The number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK has more than doubled over the past five years to more than one per week. The average age of a rough sleeper when they die is 43, about half the UK life expectancy.  The tragedy is that it’s entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy.

“A reality forced by government policy” – sounds harsh and cruel, which accurately describes the situation.  To emphasize the seriousness of this declining situation, the article affirmed that homelessness had climbed 134% since 2010.  And then it makes a welcome jump to Finland, where homelessness has declined 35% in the same period.

What is the secret to Finland’s success?  Surely the solution must be as complex as the problem itself?  Well, maybe not.  As The Guardian put it: “Give homes to homeless people.”

Sounds great, but it actually involves a switch in thinking, law and public policy. It functions on a valid premise: housing is a basic right, nothing more, nothing less.  It’s also highly practical: how can we expect individuals beset by an array of personal and systemic difficulties to concentrate on such conditions when they don’t have a roof over their heads?  Their number one concern is survival and everything else is secondary to that reality.

Naturally, skeptics will decry such a proposal. “Won’t such people bleed the system dry?  It would surely provide a private setting for their addictions, correct?”   Then there’s the criticism: providing housing on such a premise would hurt the economy.

Such complaints can be shrouded in prejudice, but when no other rationale, research or possibility is provided to them even a sincere public gets flustered.

So, let’s talk about alternatives and see if all of us can keep an open mind.

Yes, Finland’s homeless number went down the moment homes were provided, but the real story is what transpires with those suddenly finding secure housing.  Research reveals that they availed themselves of services to improve their overall condition (addiction, mental health challenges, hunger, poverty, counselling). Provided with a roof over their heads, they had the time, the feeling of support, and the will to get on with their lives.  Intriguingly, recovery rates from addictions showed solid improvement.

For those fretting over the costs of a “housing first” strategy, Finland has been at it long enough to offer a compelling narrative.  The economic savings from homeless individuals no longer having to access health services and the criminal justice system easily covered the costs of providing the homes.  In other words, the provision of housing saved the mushrooming economic costs inherent in the old model.

The writer of The Guardian column noted that he didn’t spot one homeless person in Finland during his time there on research.  Only a few hours after he returned to England, “I walked past more than 100 rough sleepers queuing for food in the rain, just a few minutes from parliament.

So here we have it: a tale of two countries – one maintaining a costly position of the status quo, and the other moving ahead confidently on the basis of human rights, dignity and economic sense.  The research is there from other countries as well.  It all reminds us that homelessness is more about apathy than conscious citizenship or sound government.  It certainly isn’t about economic sense.  Good policy is good economics; bad policy results in human suffering and the loss of dignity.  Given the high costs of homelessness to our health and social support system, little can be lost in taking a bold step, as Finland has done, not just for the sake of economics but for humanity itself.

We can blame the homeless all we want, but in essence what we have is a failure of will and a collective understanding that no community can be all that great when it tolerates people with nowhere to lay their heads and no way to move forward with their lives.

Shakespeare’s Still Cool

Posted on April 18, 2018

We don’t know the exact date of his birth, but England’s most famous writer was born in the month of April in 1564 – 554 years and half a millennium ago.   Asked about William Shakespeare, author Virginia Woolf noted, “The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  In a world full of easily accessed information and endless publications, it would be easy to assume that the great English bard has been transcended by our modern penchant for data.

Virginia might have jumped the gun.  If we were to take the time to research our own words, we would discover that William Shakespeare adds punch to our own sayings.  British journalist Bernard Levin took on just such an exercise, eventually stunned by how much Shakespeare shaped much of what he wrote and said.  Here are some of his findings – each one from Shakespeare himself.

  • It’s Greek to me
  • Salad days
  • Act more in sorrow than in anger
  • Vanished into thin air
  • Refused to budge an inch
  • Green-eyed jealousy
  • Play fast and loose
  • Tongue-tied
  • Knitted your brows
  • Make a virtue of necessity
  • Insist on fair play
  • Didn’t sleep a wink
  • Stood on ceremony
  • Cold comfort
  • Too much of a good thing
  • A foregone conclusion
  • As luck would have it
  • It’s high time
  • The long and short of it
  • The game is up
  • The truth will out
  • Flesh and blood
  • Suspect foul play
  • Teeth set on edge
  • Without rhyme or reason
  • Give the devil his due
  • If the truth were known
  • Good riddance
  • Send him packing
  • Dead as a doornail
  • An eyesore
  • A laughing stock
  • The devil incarnate
  • Blinking idiot
  • By Jove
  • For goodness’ sake
  • What the dickens

Here we are, over 500 years later, still using terms like these in our modern idiom – an amazing feat.  These are but a small portion of terms we still use in our everyday language, likely without ever knowing we are channeling William Shakespeare.  It all reminds me of an old Mexican proverb: “They tried to bury us.  They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Words still matter, and more important than how many we know is how we use them.  Words can heal or hurt, build or belittle, draw us together  or push us apart.  We need to use them to infuse our society with hope now more than ever.

 

Photo credit: telegraph.co.uk

 

 

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