The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Which Set of Virtues?


“IT IS NOT ALWAYS THE SAME THING to be a good man and a good citizen,” wrote Aristotle a long time ago about ethics and politics. Winston Churchill put a slightly different twist on it: “Good and great are seldom in the same person.”

In a lot of cases we possess the capacity to be good people and effective citizens, but we often find that one gets emphasized at the expense of the other. David Brooks penned a New York Times article a while ago that spoke about the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The former are the kind we put in our applications for employment and that provide for external success. The latter? Well, we already know what they are. They are deeper, more purposeful – the things that are said about people at their funerals.

We would probably find general agreement that we really aspire to the eulogy virtues, understanding their primacy. Yet our daily and professional lives tend to play out in other dimensions. Sometimes we don’t even have the luxury of choice in the matter; most systems, even most educational centres, are looking for performance qualities that shape us into better products for the market. After buying into such a mindset for key times in our careers we find we have occasionally left the better part of ourselves behind. Or as Brooks himself put it: “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” He provided us an insightful point here.

There is always the pressure to leave our mark on the world and it propels us forward every day. But in our more refined moments we sense the need to not so much conquer the world as to serve it. We are most often living contradictions in such matters and in moments of clarity we comprehend the distinctions confronting us.

One part of us seeks direct answers, to create, where input leads to output, and effort leads to success and reward. There’s a lot of self-interest in such an approach and we benefit by that internal drive. But then there’s our more ethical side, which is almost the opposite – giving in order to receive, humility instead of pride, living for things outside of ourselves. The former works on our strengths, whereas the latter refines our character in ways the makes us better people rather than just instruments of someone else’s design – a pattern which, if pursued, leads us to foolishly judge other people by their abilities rather than their inherent worth.

As we age, we often make a startling discovery: in living life we have slowly turned ourselves into something not quite as impressive as we had hoped. We don’t love deeply enough. We are quick to judge, and slow to show grace. We see people in the perspective of their relationship to us as opposed to their own value to the world. Almost effortlessly, the years can create a gap between our resumé virtues and our eulogy virtues and we are humbled that we let it happen.

I have learned in my own life that, as a politician and a citizen, I often failed in this area. Maturity has reminded me that a kind of “ethical integration” has to occur that aligns my life with the deeper meanings of existence instead of with the things that press for my attention everyday.

There are millions of good people out there that fight for their resumé virtues and have a compelling sense of right and wrong. But eulogy virtues call for us to take things a step farther, and to put the fate of the broader world on a higher level in our lives. As Jim Butcher put it in his Fool Moon: “It isn’t enough to stand and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.” Put simply: we’ve got to struggle to become the kind of people who will eventually define our own funerals with nobility.


“Do the Reverse”


WE MET IN A COZY TORONTO CHINESE RESTAURANT along with Scarborough MP John McKay. Muhammad Yunus had won the Noble Peace Prize a couple of years earlier and he had come to Canada to sell the merits of his Grameen Bank – a microcredit organization that has assisted 140 million of the world’s poorest people to start their own businesses. His demeanour was gentle, his wit disarming, but one could easily see he was totally committed to helping the world’s marginalized. Yet he worried as to the direction the financial world was taking. We talked about his home nation of Bangladesh as well as South Sudan, where my wife and I were running a non-governmental organization. I could tell at once that his wisdom was deep, his commitment even deeper. He left me inspired.

Yunus was in Davos a couple of weeks ago listening to world’s elite talk about money, money, money. When asked what he thought of it all, he simply said, “We must do the reverse.” Quizzed as to what he meant, the Nobel Laureate proceeded to walk civilization back from the brink in which it presently found itself.

But first he set the context by observing that the concentration of wealth will come into ever fewer hands – today it’s the 1%, tomorrow it will be half a percent, then one-tenth. It’s not a linear, but an exponential process, Yunus noted, and the general population isn’t in control of any of it.

It’s then that the wise investor from Bangladesh made his insightful and bold insight:

“Everything we have done is the reverse of conventional. They go to the city; we go to the village. They go to men; we go to women. They say people should come to the bank; we say the bank should go to the people. They say you need to be job seekers; we say you need to be job creators. Everything has to be done in the opposite if we are to save ourselves. Everything has to be done in the reverse way.”

Yunus went on to say how following such practices builds better and more stable societies. Whether one is inclined to agree or not, it’s clear that what we presently have is a clear contradiction to what he proposes.

“You can’t see change until you change the way you see,” writes Raimy Diaz. We as citizens are the sum total of our thoughts, and we’ll never change our world until we change the way we think.

“Terrible Simplifiers”

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OVER THE LAST NUMBER OF MONTHS I have been asked when I’m going to compose some blog posts on the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. It would be easy to accomplish, but I hesitate about writing about someone who might not know the difference between hummus and Hamas. We have all underestimated his appeal to the disenchanted, but as his loss in Iowa revealed last evening, he may be more of a polarizing rather than a populist figure.

Donald Trump, along with numerous other seekers of power, forms the embodiment of what Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt called the “terrible simplifiers” – demagogues who seek power and fame by manipulating and exploiting the frustrations of those disenchanted with politics and politicians altogether. To be sure, politics itself these days is often characterized more by underperformance than delivering stable, even inspirational, government. And politicians themselves often appear more willing to play the role of party patsy than to carve out a space in the broader political order for those constituents who elected them.

However else you term it, the decay of politics has led to the age of extremism and polarization, perhaps best exemplified presently in Donald Trump. The hyper-inflated kind of politics is easily spotted in the extremism, crippling partisanship, and sectarianism slowly creeping into what was once historically stable politics. The Republican Party in the United States was one of the most credentialed and able political organizations in the world. Today, as it fires off in all directions, it has shifted its historical ability to unite Americans to splintering them and making effective governing almost impossible.

Canada has flirted with this kind of extremism but seems able to right itself when it seems to matter, keeping us distinctly different from our southern neighbours in ways that are still functional. As CBC writer Aaron Wherry stated at the end of yesterday’s Iowa voting: “American democracy is good for making Canadian democracy seem perfectly reasonable.” We watch our American cousins with interest and perhaps mild alarm at their flirtation with the terrible simplifiers, but we must be vigilant against such incursions into our own political system.

The rise of these great and dividing simplifiers has resulted in countless improvised groups in politics, civil society, and the media that evade proper public scrutiny and hide themselves in the great anonymity of the Web. They create untold opportunities for activities of deceit, confusing a disenchanted citizenry in the process. It all leads to a form of “stupid” politics that cheapens both politician and citizen alike.

Demagogues, charlatans, and hyper-partisan politicians have always been with us. What is new, however, is the environment we have allowed them to create within us a citizens that at least permits them easy access to power. This must be resisted at all costs.

Democracy is messy and never easy. Voters have always grown disenchanted over time with their elected representatives, and politicians inevitably sink deeper into the party structure than their own constituencies. But such developments are repeatedly overcome by a politics that can still inspire and pull from within us the better angels of our natures – individually and collectively. And we are at our best as citizens when we can contain the negative aspects of extremism and oversimplification. For that to happen, though, we need a good dose of that one quality we have permitted to erode over time: trust.

In his best-selling book V is for Vendetta, author Alan Moore notes that, “Demagoguery allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured. Twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate, while culture plunges into the abyss.” Excessive politics might belong to some terrible simplifiers, but culture belongs to us – all of us – and must never be permitted to atrophy because some leaders seek to arouse our anger instead of refining our intellect and our passions.

The Weak Man’s Imitation


IT WAS OBAMA’S LAST STATE OF THE UNION address, so he threw out the challenge to the entire chamber – “Fix our politics.” That sent all sides scrambling to lay blame on others for the sorry state of the political order in the United States. Yet the reality is that they are all to blame. With the present campaign under way there are virtually no signs that anything will get fixed.

Which isn’t really what people hoped for in Canada. Our national election behind us, following a decade of dysfunctional politics in Parliament, there was a subtle hope that the nastiness of Question Period and the relationship between the parties would show signs of improvement.

With Parliament resuming this week it had the sad feeling of deja vu all over again. The new House Speaker, Geoff Regan, ran for the position by saying he would fight for a more civil House of Commons. I know Geoff fairly well. He meant it and had refused to throw the mud when he was an MP. So, when he heard the chirping in the Chamber, he stood, saying that it wasn’t a good sign that he was hearing noise “from more than one side.” He attempted to add that the Commons was the “crucible of democracy” and that while vigorous debate was natural, incivility was not. Even as he tried to finish, the Conservative caucus heckled him, which no doubt was discouraging to more than just the Speaker.

We had hoped for better and we still do, but this was a bad start. And it wasn’t just the Conservatives. Although the NDP had earlier circulated a petition calling for an end to heckling as a “counterproductive behavior,” the party leader and his followers pitched right in to the melee. Nor were the Liberals quiet, despite their promise that as a government they would, “restore dignity” to the House.

This is where we come in … the sooner the better. We have to weigh in just as pollster and writer Bruce Anderson did recently when he composed a column for the Globe and Mail titled, “The Speech I Would Write for the Next Conservative Leader.” He believed that it was time for the Conservative Party to have an honest conversation with itself if it ever hoped to win back the favour of the Canadian people again. Anderson’s words, especially the following, proved powerful:

“We’ve forgotten what it’s like to try to persuade someone of something … Spending our days attacking others to energize our base produces immediate rewards, but the bill comes due eventually … Somewhere along the way, we confused the idea of being passionate about our ideas with being obnoxious to people outside our party. Regular people don’t live their lives with their knuckles and teeth bared, and they don’t like people who do … So let’s regroup and aim high.”

Well, they didn’t elevate their conduct this week and will have a difficult time growing support if they maintain this pattern. And if the other parties continue pitching in, democracy itself will be the ultimate victim. We have to act as Anderson has done, by speaking up, by writing our local MPs, and insisting on better if governing is to get better. Heckling isn’t free speech, and Parliament shouldn’t be the bigot’s last sanctuary.

In his Passionate State of Mind, author Eric Hoffer wrote: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” True, and if the “imitation game” continues on into this winter session, feebleness will once again hold our politics and our civil spirit in its grasp.

Davos: The Ever-Missing Gender Lens


THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM IN Davos, Switzerland last week captured a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Sessions were held in the growing fear that elite figures in finance, government, and the entertainment industry are no longer in control of the direction in which our planet is headed.

A clear sign of what’s wrong was obvious just in the makeup of the participants. Around 18% of them were women – that’s it. In 2002 that number was 9%, and in 2011 it was 16%. True, things are heading in the proper direction, but, seriously, this is trite and incremental stuff – hardly worthy of true leadership, especially on a global level.

What’s truly frustrating about this fundamental lack of progress at Davos is that a good portion of many of the meetings was about tackling poverty by supporting women’s efforts in developing nations. It was right there in front of them as Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, observed at Davos: “I don’t think the people who go to Davos deny that this is a major issue. They read the same reports about the value of investing in women in terms of education and employment as I do.”

The World Food Program reminded the crowd that the global economy requires the leadership of women if it is to be righted. Almost 90% of each dollar is invested by women and girls in their families through purchasing books, medicine, and food. The number for their male counterparts is between 30 and 40 percent.

I suppose we would expect a development group to say such things, but what about the head of the World Economic Summit himself, Klaus Schwab. He stated forthrightly that:

“A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential.”

Who’s to argue? And why would we wish to? But how do you square that observation with the fact that only 18% of Davos attendees are women? This has to be more than some kind of value statement; it must be an action plan, and if anyone should be able to guide us in this direction, it is supposed to be world leaders.

This week I composed a piece for the Huffington Post on the Davos Man. You can link to it here. Author David Rothkopf has asked the cheeky question: “What About Davos Woman?” He’s right. How can you gather the world’s elite in such a grand spectacle as Davos and call for more women’s leadership when you are willing to tolerate less than 20% women into the sessions? Clearly there is work to be done, but it’s difficult to have confidence in the supposed “best and the brightest” when they can’t make happen in their own sessions what they say needs to happen in the world in general.

“Leaders do not conform, says Israelmore Ayivor, author of Leaders’ Ladder, “they reform. If you conform, you are nurturing mediocrity. If you reform, you are breeding change.” If it’s change Davos is looking for, then conforming to historic gender patterns is hardly the way to get there.

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