The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

The Future Is No Longer A Gift

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky." The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

Note:  This post is also available to view on National Newswatch here.

BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED ON A GENERATIONAL SEA CHANGE in politics and government. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is riding its crest. The American president’s agenda eventually came up against an angry partisan opposition, remaining somewhat unfulfilled. The new Canadian prime minister’s policies have yet to sail through choppy waters.

When the two leaders summited in Washington D.C. last week, there was the unmistakable sense that something new was brewing and that the brief moment in the sun between Obama’s retirement and Trudeau’s arrival was a kind of passing of the torch. But behind each of these men emerged a new social and political force that will make our tomorrow, for better or worse, unlike our present age of democratic underperformance.

For the first time, the abiding and somewhat lackluster political imagination of the Baby Boomers is formidably matched by the Millennial generation – those born from the mid-1980s onwards. We should have noted by now that the key trait of this new political reality is decidedly progressive. Like Trudeau and Obama they view the public estate through a centre to centre-left lens. How else can we explain the massive success of Bernie Sanders with young voters in the American primaries, or Trudeau’s enlistment of over two million new or re-engaged voters in the past federal election? Things are not only changing in both countries, but are transformational in their effect.

Naturally there are many of the younger generation that ascribe to the conservative agenda, but they are the exception, not the rule. Everything else among the Millennials is about a social and economic shifting of gears – the mobilization of the public spirit.

This new force demands transparency over backroom deals, authenticity over authority, social inclusion over historic stereotypes and practices. And unlike their predecessors, who systematically tolerated, even promoted, the shrinking and paucity of the public estate, the Millennials envision a strategic place for government in their collective future. In their own way they are angry, frustrated that two nations that produce more wealth than at any other time in their history would permit so much of it to be frittered away in the pursuit and practice of a narrowing capitalism.

What else should we expect? They face stiffer unemployment than their predecessors, are saddled with unacceptably high student loans, and have watched their wages either stagnate or shrink. They largely played by the rules, went to university or colleges in record numbers in order to secure well-paying jobs to secure their future – the same pattern their parents had employed and enjoyed. Except it didn’t work out for them, or for their respective countries.

And so they are playing the hand they have been dealt with, pressing for environmental renewal, for capitalism with a heart, for a politics that actually includes constituents, and governments that reflect their diverse communities. They shake their heads at a political architecture that still can’t work out wage parity between men and women. They reflect in wonder how countries so resourced and rich can tolerate yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. And they double-down in anger over a political class that has stood by and watched as dignity has been stripped out of hard work.

This new political force has now arrived – revolutionaries, not reactionaries. They want meaning and inclusiveness and they expect their politics and governments to fight for both. They aren’t so much a volatile force as a moral one, and they have the scars to prove it. They are no longer the future we frequently patronize, but the living, breathing present we must now accommodate.

Only months prior to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a remarkable observation while addressing a crowd, one that perfectly challenged his generation: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Fewer observations capture what’s going on right now in politics. Gone are the days when by simply by following a time-honoured agenda that the wealth and individual choices of the future would simply unfold for us. We are living in an era where we must fight back to reclaim the public space, where we get out to vote to change politics itself, and where we link money with meaning again. This is the era which gave us Obama and which propels Justin Trudeau. The recent meetings of the leaders in Washington weren’t so much about the affability of their relationship as this new reality of sacrifice in politics that put them in their lofty positions in the first place. Far from just electing change, this new generation wants to jointly build it.

Canada-U.S. Relations: Rising Tides

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CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.

Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.

But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.

The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.

That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.

Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.

In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.

Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.

We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.

No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us.  That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.

Transcending Cynicism

This blog post is also available at National Newswatch here.

“SCRATCH ANY CYNIC AND YOU WILL FIND a disappointed idealist,” comedian George Carlin said during an interview. We are watching this play out in the American election season, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have plumbed a motherlode of disenchaumudunu_kaybetmentment on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters of both candidates continue to cry out that they want their country back and their leader is just the person to do it.

In the modern era, those seeking election have learned that it’s possible to create something of a political movement by speaking to the despair of citizens, and there’s a point to it. Globally, politics has increasingly become a mug’s game – a sad parody of how it doesn’t seem to matter who gets elected because our greatest challenges as humanity remain significantly under-addressed. Whether it’s a lacklustre response to climate change, financial inequality, or a growing kind of collective distemper, the political class seems never quite able to rise to the challenge. This is playing out in real time as we witness the fascinating machinations in the American election.

In Canada, however, cynicism has to some degree been temporarily suspended. Whether the change promised by the Trudeau Liberals will materialize can’t be known for some time yet, but a stubborn sense of optimism has endured in large swaths of the country since Election Day, and, for a time at least, our growing suspicion has been placed on the shelf.

It didn’t start with Trudeau’s victory, but had been emerging over the last few years, for anyone willing to spot the undercurrents. Progressives across Canada began to see movement in 2013, when British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario opted for more activist-minded governments. Cities like Montreal, Mississauga, London, Calgary, and Toronto voted along similar lines. Something was brewing and at its base was the belief that governments could entertain more imaginative policies than mere austerity and restraint. The movement caught on enough that the Postmedia’s Jim Warren would note:

“The stars have finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”

Years of political dysfunction and financial restraint had ultimately resulted in a critical mass of the Canadian electorate pining for something more dynamic. In voting with the pen in the ballot box instead of remaining isolated in their detached cynicism, citizens were confirming they were capable of transcending their pessimism in order to be part of the change they sought.

And so progressive leaders and parties have the levers of power at their disposal. Will it be sufficient to restore hope in what Canada can accomplish? The answer is no. Change has come because Canadians pressed and voted for it, with progressive politics benefitting as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what changed our political dynamic in Canada, not the other way around.

Elections don’t change us so much as they reveal us. Like our cousins south of the border we wanted something more hopeful. Yet enough Canadians were willing to transcend their learned cynicism to at least create the possibility of a different future. In putting aside our collective pessimism we affirmed what Sufi mystic Rumi concluded: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”

Will Canadians remain engaged enough to shape their governments towards the change they seek? If not, cynicism is never far off and it won’t take much to tarnish our ideals. The political order has caught the wave, but without citizens paying attention it won’t be able to ride it to completion, whatever the goal may be. The next few years will be just as much a test of citizenship as of politics, and democracy will only flourish as both remain engaged in a partnership robust enough to overcome our main challenges.

Time to End the Tinkering

With the new Parliament getting under way, it appears that, thus far, things don’t seem like business as usual in Ottawa.  Numerous commentators have wondered whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambitious agenda about renewal in many dimensions can last.  We don’t know at present, but watching the House proceedings yesterday reminded me of a post I wrote last year, pressing that it was time to get serious about change.  It won’t happen unless citizens keep pressing for the very pragmatic ideals they voted for in this past election.  Below is the post from almost a year ago.

THE FEDERAL LIBERALS CAUCUSED IN LONDON this week and it was good to see some old friends. Justin Trudeau was struggling through a bout of food poisoning and his caucus was focusing on the one issue they believe will prove critical to the coming election: the economy.

I get it. Each party is talking about our struggling economy, hoping to leverage some advantage from it, one way or the other. But I wanted to ask my Liberal friends one question: will you stop tinkering this time? All parties have been doing so, but this occasion in London could represent a turning point within the party.

We all understand that each time we bounce back from some kind of recession, severe or light, that we never land back where we were. The unemployment rate continues to climb, as do the obstacles confronting the poor. On other occasions, all parties have focused on economic solutions but they never quite pulled it off. Yes, deficits were slayed, or, yes, trade was enhanced, but the growing disillusionment and worry among Canadians is inevitably creeping up to the levels found in the United States. People don’t really trust government to get things right anymore because, well, our problems have grown regardless of who was in power.

The real problem confronting the political order these days is not financial capital but social capital. Somewhere along the line, the political order lost touch with the mood of the people and now everything is about pursuing the vote of a relatively few number of people in order to gain power. We, as Canadians, understand that. But will you go back to the origins of our difficulties and repair them from their very source? There was a time when the corporate good transcended the public good and ever since then we have watched as wealth has been accumulated in record measures at the same time as less and less of it went to average Canadians.

In a very real and increasingly tragic way, Canadians have felt the withdrawal of institutional supports, both private and public. This has created a crisis in confidence that can’t be simply solved by an election. Forget talking about the lower, middle, or upper class; this is about the “anxious” class, and how the worry they feel about the future of their kids and a more dangerous world is far more serious than any political party’s electioneering. These people are struggling to preserve their standing, their sense of worth in an increasingly alienated culture. And now they have slowly begun pursuing individual survival over social solidarity. Signs of this are everywhere, but it’s important to acknowledge that the political and financial classes oversaw this development, and to merely give us the same-old, same-old, will only erode that reality further.

There used to be a time when individual identity and social identity crisscrossed repeatedly in Canada. In rural communities and big cities there was always the sense that this country was “under construction” and going somewhere. Now we have no idea where the politicos are taking us, and our confidence in the future and ourselves is eroding.

Liberals have always prided themselves as the party of balance. Okay, but our sense of equilibrium has been shot for some time now. All parties played a role in that disruption and we won’t get things right unless we go back to the origins of our difficulties. Why has the political class forced us to choose between trade and jobs, between comfortable houses and homelessness, between remaining in the middle-class or poverty, between meager governments or no governments at all? These are sincere questions that should be asked of all parties.

Even at the best of times in recent decades we have felt the tearing at the fabric of the Canadian identity. We have failed our aboriginal people seriously enough that we can’t even muster the strength or sense of social justice to launch a commission to locate the roughly 1,000 missing or murdered aboriginal women in this country. What is that about? Is this the vitality of our social consciousness these days? Must we watch as parties bludgeon themselves to a depraved degree and walk away with any sense of hope diminished?

You believe in balance, right? But can we all bring ourselves to acknowledge that we lost that tenuous tension that was Confederation years ago? The number of poor is growing. Good jobs are becoming scarce. Veterans are being denied. Seniors are fretting. And students can’t even afford to learn anymore. This is not the Canada we envision in our finest moments. So, enough with balance already; let’s get on with finding answers to these, our deepest problems.

In the U.S., Obama has opted to use the last two years of his tenure to attempt to bring about social and economic change. Yet there was a time when people thought he would start with such things, not end with them in a lame duck scenario. Enough with institutional cynicism; get on with the task of remaking the country on the basis of our progressive ideals and not some corporate ideology.

This is about the battle for the heart and soul, not of the Liberal Party, but of the country. The sweet spot isn’t the middle-class, but the aspirations of a good people. The time for tinkering is over; the time for renaissance has come.

 

 

 

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

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AS JUSTIN TRUDEAU MOVES THROUGH A SERIES OF SUMMITS that will surely have an effect on global direction, I thought of John Kennedy describing the turbulent first few months of his presidency:

“I knew that this country faced serious challenges, but I could not realize – nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office – how heavy and constant would be those burdens” 

Both men were the second youngest to be elected to the highest office of their respective countries – Kennedy was 42, Trudeau one year older. International crises defined their first year, and, like Kennedy, Trudeau has fielded no shortage of opinions concerning how he should respond to the Paris attacks. Some think he should ramp up Canada’s mission, while others believe he should stick with his original promise to bring the planes back home.

Putting aside our personal opinions for a moment, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the situation the newly elected Prime Minister finds himself in. The pressures on Trudeau to ramp up the military option are fierce, and yet he rightfully points out that he was elected on a mandate to place resources on other vital aspects of Canadian influence, like diplomacy, international development, and peaceful conflict resolution.

Trudeau knows well enough that the West has been bombing regions of the Middle East for three decades and that there is little to show for it. Yet neither can he wash his hands of the affair. He’s in a bind, and at the end of all the opinions, pro and con, it is he who must decide.

The new PM doesn’t think along the traditional lines of conflict management. As Obama reminded the world yesterday, the real issues lie in the miserable conditions that caused so many refugees to flee their homelands. In a few more years, the Arab world will replace Africa as the world’s poorest region. Left in that condition, we can only expect more turbulence. Any military response must be coupled with far more effective efforts in diplomacy, education, women’s empowerment, and micro enterprise – initiatives that underwent significant cuts by the previous government.

And then there is the reality that few wish to talk about: ISIS, as a broker of world calamity, is highly overrated. This feels counterintuitive, but it merits further discussion. Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, among others, reminds us that the main weapon brandished by ISIS is fear itself:

“The biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.”

He reminds us that one fallacy would be straight out appeasement – acting as though nothing serious has happened. Another would be stripping most of the liberties and rights of Western citizens in an effort to promise a security that can’t be guaranteed. There are some things that can’t simply be bartered away, like personal liberty and the case for a universal sense of human worth and dignity. As Krugman concludes: “The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of.” Paris makes it feel like they are capable of so much more, but in reality it is the fear their actions breed within us that carries the greatest danger.

Trudeau is of the belief that cooperation among nations must be more permanent than just responding to occasional emergencies. The roots of terrorism lie in poverty, ignorance, and closed societies, and in this surely the nations of the world, and the private sector along with them, can provide resources other than mere weaponry and military intervention.  Each nation can play its own unique role, Canada among them.

Harsh reality broke in on Justin Trudeau’s entrance onto the world stage and will surely test the fortitude of his convictions and his belief that the Canadian people voted for something other than ongoing warfare. Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry IV’s leadership as, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” is hauntingly real at this moment. The rhetoric of only a week ago, maintaining that, “Canada is back” is no longer sufficient for this vital moment in time. What is required now is a Canada that is different – in how it approaches the status quo, in its belief in the power of a woman’s role in the world, and the vitality of education, health, and a sustainable natural order. A PM that believes in the power, compassion, and fortitude of his own people might very well prove more effective than any jet armed to the teeth.

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