The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

Payette’s Appointment Breaks New Ground – Again

As appointments go, the choice of Julie Payette as Canada’s new Governor General was figuratively out of this world. The former astronaut had completed two missions to the space station and spent seven years as the Canadian Space Agency’s chief astronaut. But her qualifications were far more wide ranging: speaking six languages, commercial pilot, a computer engineer, and active participant in numerous social causes.

Yet there was one key component to add to the appeal of the 53-year old from Montreal and it was pivotal: Payette perfectly fit Canada’s present view of itself. The almost universal testimonials to her appointment were proof enough of that reality and the celebrations prompted by the announcement spoke to our own collective view of present-day Canada in the midst of a troubled world.

This country has a history of doing the unexpected when it comes to the Governor General selection. Two of the last three Governors General were women and each played a dynamic role in presenting a Canadian face that was acceptable not only for domestic consumption but for international appeal. Payette appears more than ready to break new ground in the pattern of Adrienne Clarkson and Michelle Jean, not to mention David Johnson, who preceded her. Their appointments were a tribute, not only the remarkable individuality of these leaders, but to a nation that discerned in them a reflection of itself.

In recent months I’ve been authoring a thematic study of John Buchan, one of John F, Kennedy’s favourite authors, and Canada’s 15th Governor General (1935-1940). Even in those pivotal years as we entered World War Two Canada was willing to break the mould. His appointment created a sensation when it was reported that he was the first commoner ever selected for the position (he was actually the second). Rather than some kind of convenient placeholder from the British House of Lords, as was the tradition, Buchan was an internationally acclaimed author – his most famous work being Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller later made into two major movies.

But Buchan was more than a wordsmith. He worked for the British government in South Africa, oversaw Britain’s spies in World War One, was a Member of Parliament for Scottish universities, an avid adventurer, and a successful businessman and publisher. What Canada was getting in those formative years was an appointee that transcended politics. This was Canada’s first great challenge to the British parliament in saying that it wanted to choose its own Governor General – breaking the historical pattern of selection only by the monarch of England.

Buchan travelled Canada extensively, especially First Nations communities, and fought for the right of individual groups to have their own identities recognized by both government and citizens. After spending years writing on the uniqueness of Canada’s character prior to his appointment, Buchan then began to build on what he had written and helped to transform Canada in the process.

As the appointment of Buchan revealed, and as Payette’s selection affirms, this country loves those individual leaders who are larger than life. When author Brian Moore wrote of the Canada he knew in the 1960s, he spoke honestly: “Walls, both physical and political, have always partitioned this enormous land, turning its citizens’ gaze inward.” Yet our selection of Governors General, especially in recent years, has blown the lid off that assessment. Jean was a refugee who came to Canada from Haiti. Clarkson became a dynamic journalist after arriving from Hong Kong. David Johnson was a brilliant academic and university leader. These last three Governors General alone defy our collective parochialism and domestic preoccupations.

And now we have an astronaut/humanitarian/engineer/francophone/musician/pilot and athlete about to take up residence in Rideau Hall and reflecting the dynamism of a modern nation that is in the process of discovering its role in a changing world. Having orbited the planet some 400 times, Payette’s view of Canada has been of its position within a larger context. For the next few years this remarkably able woman will have the privilege of showing us our own uniqueness and potential in that world. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.

The Process of Becoming

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

“I suppose that a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one,” wrote Mavis Gallant in 1981, to which she added a personal note: “My logical reason is that I have never been anything else, nor has it occurred to me that I might be.”

As we celebrate our country’s 150th birthday today, it’s likely that, in a world full of turmoil and identity crises, millions of Canadians will move through the day in the spirit of Gallant – peaceful, quietly thankful and usually pleasant.

It’s odd that this placid reason for being has survived the tumults of the modern era. Identity struggles are epic across the globe. China, Syria, Britain, Germany, France, Venezuela, and, of course, a deeply divided America – these and many like them are in the throes of questioning their past, fighting through the present, and seeking a different kind of future. This phenomenon has been with us for more some time, causing political scientist Samuel Huntington to ask, “Who are we? Where do we belong?”

Since our birth as a nation we were led to believe that our national character has been formed by three great influences: Britain, France and the United States. We have accommodated the most useful of these societies and tossed out the rest. But only lately have we come to discover that this country’s original indigenous populations were rarely given the opportunity to disseminate the best of their cultural values, natural spirituality, and innate knowledge of this land we call home. For all of our pride about this country, this particular aspect of our past remains our greatest blemish and challenge.

How we have changed in recent decades. We are now far more vast and diverse a people than ever in our history. The world leaves great portions of itself in us as families from every culture expand on what was once familiar and comfortable to us. We are now something “more,” a greater expression of what we once were. We have absorbed so much human character and yet, unlike the current fate of other nations, haven’t come apart – the centre yet holds. We are neither a military or economic superpower, but we are what nations of such magnitude envy – a good people capable of compromise. For all our flaws and imperfections we have refused the path of hatred.

But we are being tested. The greatest changes in our democracy are technology and diversity. We have always had our divisions – East vs. West, North vs. South, English vs. French, rural vs. urban, generation vs. generation – and we have found sufficient accommodation to live in a wary peace. Yet with rapid advances in technology has come the transformational possibility of jumping over historical social boundaries and learning of one another. Nevertheless a new meanness has also been unleashed on the land as citizens use the same technologies to spread animosity, fear, racism and hatred in a fashion that knows no sense of respect, of humility, or even basic decency. These aren’t forces running through our streets, but through our digital networks, and increasingly in our heads. This has become the greatest threat to our bonhomie and will require all of us to raise our standard of collective self-respect.

We have much to protect, attitudes to overcome, and greatness to strive for. But for the moment – this moment – we are the envy of the world for how we have balanced our wealth, our vast natural resources, sense of global responsibility, and our ability to keep it together despite the same pressures that confront other nations. We have become the venerable Swiss Army knife of global utility. Need technological leadership? We are qualified. Peacekeepers? It’s in our national DNA. A righting of wrongs against indigenous communities? We’re working on it, as we are gender equality. An ability to transcend our divisions? That’s been our whole history.

We are fully in the world and an essential part to it. We have been to Dieppe, Dunkirk and D-Day. We flow through the very sinews of the United Nations and global hope. We have invented, skated, taught, sacrificed, and cared for the marginalized of the world, and the respect shown to us is something to which every person travelling with a Canadian flag on their backpack can attest.

We are a people in process and we are not yet as socially just as we will be. But the better angels of our natures still tempt us with the possibilities of sacrifice for the greater good. In an aging and troubled world 150 years is nothing. We are still young enough to believe in our ideals and our ability to turn them into transformation change. We are in the process of “becoming” and a 150th birthday is as good a time to celebrate that as any. Happy Canada Day.

Democracy in a Box

Those of us in the affluent West hold to the belief that certain political realities remain sacrosanct. Rule of law, political representation, will of the people, elections, civic duty – these have become so entrenched in our thoughts that we believe them immutable. And situated at the peak is that one great word that encompasses them all – democracy. For all its many flaws, it remains our preferred method of government.

The problem is that none of that is certain anymore, as the decades have introduced complexities that confound even the most stable governments. When Alan Moore, in his V is for Vendetta, wrote that, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people,” it was assumed that only one of these could exist in a single moment. But we are now learning that our modern democracy is furthering both at the same time. Rampant populism is only the most recent example of how the great democratic experiment of the last two centuries has slipped its moorings and sailed into troubled waters.

The term democracy can now mean many things, not all of them true to its original intent of citizens being granted certain rights regardless of who is in power. Indeed, the protection of these liberties by way of constitutions, civil rights, and separate branches of government was democracy’s greatest responsibility.

Yet while most countries call themselves democratic today, a good number of them use force and coercion to keep their people in submission to their autocratic rule. By delinking government from its responsibility to the individuality of its citizens, these rulers – most of them ironically elected – have taken democracy off in new directions for which it wasn’t intended. For a century, Western governments attempted, often crudely, to persuade less-developed nations to extend more liberties to their people. Leaders of those receiving nations most often justified their need for Western resources in order to free their nations from the more brutal practices of history. They then used those tools designed to enhance democracy and drove their people back into the shadows of a despotic past.

Efforts to export democracy to struggling nations were frequently mixed with ulterior motives and an almost complete lack of understanding of a region’s history. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Sudan, Rwanda, are but some of the more recent examples of naïve foreign policy run amok.

Troubling as these developments were, Western governments necessarily drew a certain comfort by comparing their advanced democratic institutions with the perceived crude efforts of those they were attempting to assist in other corners of the world.

Now such comparisons are often moot. It remains a very difficult thing to assert you have the political and economic solutions the developing world needs when you tolerate growing poverty levels, increases in violence, gender inequality, and the blind disregard of your own indigenous people. This becomes a democratic nightmare when it is your own citizens that express their disenchantment in huge number. Political instability becomes the present companion in every election and politicians adopt the torturous process of trying to be all things to all people, while ending up as bland versions of their former principled selves.

Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past week revealed just how confounding this whole democracy definition has become. The sight of a constitution-avoiding Western leader leveraging military and economic deals with a Saudi leadership that has turned civic oppression into something of an art only further blurs the lines between true democracy and it’s many modern pretenders. The result is confusion and hypocrisy. Or as the Washington Post reported: “Trump has preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.” So much for democracy’s moral high ground.

You can’t just unpack democracy as if it’s a “one-size-fits-all” bromide. It remains the most arduous political task in the world today, involving dedicated effort by citizens and those they elect. Professing democracy while denying people their democratic rights shouldn’t be fooling anybody. Voting has little effect when your only emotion towards the political order is one of fear. Mark Twain wasn’t just joking when he said, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” The essence of democracy is turning that vote into the most powerful political act by a liberated and protected people.

 

History’s Revenge

 

It all seems so long ago, yet in reality it was less than 30 years since that remarkable time in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and capitalism appeared poised to launch the world into a new, more equitable era. My wife, Jane, was there and wrote Lincoln’s famous words on the wall: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   British journalist Timothy Garton Ash famously called those remarkable few days “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”

Almost two million East Germans crossed over to the West in the next few days. Communist regimes began falling like dominoes – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Two years later the Soviet Union was disbanded. Numerous conflicts ended and the number of refugees decreased as a result. More nations became democratic and it felt as if a whole new world was in the process of being born.

What happened? That was just a generation ago. Now we’re talking walls, travel bans, dismantling trade deals, more refugees, multiple threats to economies, the possible breaking down of climate change efforts, rising terrorism, a confused international order, and significant anger at different levels. As the good folks at Freedom House reminded us not too long ago, the democracy we have believed in is undergoing more threats and decline than at anytime in the past quarter of a century.

It’s likely that during that headier time we sat back and delighted in watching democracy and capitalism wend their way through traditionally autocratic regions when we should have been using all the momentum to also reform our own institutions in the developed and affluent world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the real question was if democracy and capitalism were up to the challenge of this new world? It should have been repeatedly asked, but the West, in trying to export these twin ideas to the newly liberated nations, was too busy to consider upgrading its own beleaguered political and economic infrastructures.

Now it’s our turn, as political, social and financial upheaval threaten the established order in ways that surprise us. Did we honestly ever consider that the banning of millions of Muslims from America was actually going to happen, or even doable? Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over and prosperity just around the corner for everyone? It’s tough to address such queries because they are still being played out. We have yet to see if the growing pushback against extremist forces will be sufficient to reduce the overall danger to the planet.

What we are witnessing is history’s revenge. It’s what happens when people place history’s hard gotten gains on cruise control. By always assuming that economic and social progress was a natural development we overlooked the steep sacrifices paid to provide such opportunities. Power had morphed and we weren’t on top of it. For former German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer it was as though the emperor had lost his clothes. As he told author Moises Naim: “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places.”

And now we are discovering the same thing. It’s neither universal nor total, but the trend towards political and financial dysfunction is clear, leaving social damage in its wake. Canada is in the fortunate position of perhaps shaping these effects, but only if we form a united front against those leaders and movements that would seek to reintroduce the demons of history that we once thought vanquished. Making room for racism, xenophobia, online bigotry, and outright hatred will quickly strip us of the moral sinew required to steer a more principled course into the future.

To that must be added the urgency of defeating inequality, and creating effective environmental legislation, a sense of solidarity among all Canadian citizens, and the belief that the strides we have made in the past must be continually guarded against decay. Civil society must begin the hard work of softening the rough edges of a more violent world.

Those more troubling aspects of history are now biting back, restless to release their havoc upon a confused and alarmed world that had once hoped for something better. To survive the troubling years ahead the secret isn’t so much to put the genie back into the bottle, but to create equitable institutions and systems that better the entire world and not merely the few.

 

2016: The End of History – As We Knew It

This post can be viewed as a National Newswatch column here.

Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man emerged in 1992 – a well-crafted reasoning as to why liberal democracy of the Western variety had become the greatest form of human government. Though a fascinating read, for many who had travelled extensively there was the sense that the author’s predictions weren’t matching what was occurring in the developing world. In those regions, politics and globalization were taking unusual twists and turns of a highly unpredictable nature. Ultimately, The End of History, though a well-meaning offering, just wasn’t in-sync with humanity’s complexity.

It has taken a few decades to understand that liberal democracy itself is hardly as vibrant or dominant as we once believed, and it’s likely that 2016 was the year where we began to seriously doubt our own confidence in the financial and political systems of our present era. In reality, the previously more stable countries around the globe are falling into crisis. Canada is enjoying relative stability, but one shouldn’t presume it’s guaranteed. That will depend on us.

It’s a tough time to be a politician. Voters are looking to their elected leaders to deal effectively with growing inequality, stagnating living standards, unemployment and underemployment, surging immigration, vigilante terrorism, climate change, and the lack of effective social policies. That’s a lot, and we are quickly reaching the stage where we wonder if our leaders can actually deliver on what we expect. It’s a crisis of governance to be sure, but it is impacting democracy itself in unpredictable ways.

Wasn’t globalization and the reformatting of the world economy supposed to benefit those liberal democracies best suited to take advantage of investments and innovation? Instead we are witnessing the shift of power and influence from the developed to the developing world. In Western democracies, the safe path of progress no longer instills a sense of trust. We still have countless economic and political advantages in the West, but the competition from across the globe is now fierce. Nothing is sure any longer, and if any time in recent history taught us that truth it was 2016.

Whether we think of it or not, the inroads of modern technology and the emergence of billions of new low-wage workers into the global economy have placed us in the predicament of having far more capacity than we do demand, and in the process the average Western worker is being squeezed or made redundant altogether. To a significant degree, the pain felt in this grip helped to propel Donald Trump to victory.

The feeling of disconnectedness among citizens is tearing apart our historic sense of order and institutional progress. The advent of social media has meant that nothing is for sure anymore. It has proved largely successful at driving voters into verbally armed camps of ideology as opposed to better equipping them for integrated debate and consensus. What could have been an effective revolution of ideas and innovation has descended instead into a maelstrom of barbs, attacks, and hate speech. No one partaking of social media in these past 12 months could remain ignorant of this trend.

The last year has also felt the rumbles of nation states no longer willing to play ball with the traditional global patterns of getting along. Russia, Syria, Iran, numerous European nations, China, and even Israel in its recent war of words with the U.S., are in the process of expanding their reach in ways that break standard global protocols. It’s not just terrorist organizations that flaunt international norms; now entire nation states are flirting with the practice. 2016 was the Year of the Rogue.

It seems tragic that in the face of such imposing challenges the divisions in Western societies are exacerbated by dysfunction in both the partisanship of politics and the separations within the citizenry. These are times when our attentions must be focused on overcoming our differences by identifying our commonalities.

One thing is for certain: leaders can no longer proceed in their various agendas without the support of citizens. It is no longer enough to engage only during election seasons. Populism has risen so quickly, and with such turbulence, that established political orders around the globe have been served notice – power is no longer the playground of the privileged. If by the end of 2017 elected officials fail to mobilize power and finance for the betterment of average citizens instead of the wealthy or the political parties, then history itself will transform into something no one can fully predict. So far, it is difficult to feel assured.

Years ago political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote of a “third wave” of democracy that would spring up around the world, driven in large part by grassroots populism. Since the 1970s, the number of electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, went from 45 to over 123 of the 192 countries today. Democracy is everywhere, but it’s more like turbulent cauldron than any kind of organized movement among the citizens of the world. Neither political nor financial leaders have yet shown the capacity to collectively shape these movements. 2017 might well be their final chance before the dam breaks, ushering in a different world.

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