The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

Looks Like History Didn’t End After All

hourglass

ALMOST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IT BECAME a literary sensation. I devoured the book in three days on the coast of Nova Scotia. The premise of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was provocative, if not audacious. He reasoned that it was clear that capitalist democracy has basically beaten back every other form of government and stood pre-eminent over history itself. He viewed history as a winding experimentation of various forms of governance that eventually fended off unworthy contenders to claim democracy itself as the ultimate victor. In that sense, history needed to look no further; it had reached the most free, refined, and prosperous political management system that would likely never be transcended.

Admittedly, it was a heady time. Communism had fallen. American imperialistic democracy appeared unassailable. And capitalism? Globalization was supposedly spreading its prosperity around the world. All looked good; why look for anything better?

Looking back at it now, it all seems so naïve. The attacks of 9/11 brought all that to a screaming halt. Though armed conflicts between official state actors has been in decline for decades, the rise of terrorism and the lack of accountability of non-state actors has made the world seem more dangerous. The Great Recession put the lie to the simplistic belief that capitalism would lead us to some kind of Nirvana. And the impending catastrophic reach of climate change, driven largely by the insane penchant for modernization without the proper understanding of the consequences, might very well bring us to the edge of catastrophe. So, no, history didn’t end up in the ideal, but in a toxic soup of challenges that civilization hardly seems prepared for.

In a real sense history hasn’t changed much at all, but our perception of it clearly has. It’s never been easy and progress has always been excruciating. Democracy is now being challenged by numerous hybrid-like systems of government, such as China’s. Our comfortable Western view of humanity is under assault and our political structures are sagging under the strain. The great consensus between democracy and capitalism is no longer a sure thing.

In a very real way the concepts of both the democratic and capitalist experiments have to be reinvented if they are to endure. A financial system that can make individuals billionaires overnight while leaving billions in grinding poverty over decades can hardly claim legitimacy. And a political system that can’t overcome the huge gap between itself and the citizenry makes it less likely to be trusted. Both systems were meant to provide prosperity and equity for the masses, neither of which has materialized as hoped.

If everyone truly possesses potential and equal dignity, then what are we doing allowing systems that bring us neither? History should have taught us that you can’t sustain a system that gives you everything but kills the planet, but we haven’t learned that reality yet. Refined history informed us that men and women are truly equal, but we still behave as though we didn’t get the memo. It reminded us that any nation carrying too great a gap between rich and poor eventually squanders its prosperity, but we were too busy with our credit cards.

While believing the self-interest is the way ahead, we forgot that without the collective interest nothing is truly achieved.

History isn’t about economics or governance, but ultimately concerns the pursuit of a respectful humanity. Fukuyama told us that the fulfillment of money and politics would make us happy, effectively ending history’s pursuit, but what we have learned is that they have impoverished and isolated us because we forgot that history itself cannot progress without empowered humans themselves. Time to get back to shaping history for all rather than leveraging it for the few.

Election 2015: The Son Outshines the Father

 

My new Huffington Post piece on how Justin Trudeau’s victory was greater than his fathers – http://goo.gl/qYtK2R

 

‘PEOPLE EXPECT WHAT THEY EXPECT,” says Vaibhav Mehta, “But they never realize the possibility ofimages surprise beyond expectations.” It is a sentiment that, just as good as any, describes what happened on Election Night 2015. Justin Trudeau accomplished what many thought impossible, or at the very least improbable.

Regardless of what one may have thought of the remarkable results, it reminded everyone that the Canadian people, subtle and polite as they are, hold within them the seeds of quiet revolution, occasionally teaching us that even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder.

Almost every prediction was wrong.

Virtually no one expected the early signs of Red Tide on the East coast to transform into a tsunami by the time the evening was over. Watching Stephen Harper at the end of it all was something like reading Donna Tartt’s observation in her The Secret History: “How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.” A watered-down version of that fate described the outcome for Thomas Mulcair. Things didn’t go as expected.

I sat in the House of Commons with the party leaders for a number of years and came to know their traits. When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2008 it was clear to everyone that he could never be destined for the backbenches. Out of the ashes of that difficult campaign for the Liberals rose a kind of phoenix that would lead to their redemption.

They sat Justin Trudeau directly behind me in the House and for almost three years I got a ringside view of his development. His rhetoric, at times bawdy, nevertheless carried intensity in the Parliamentary chamber. I was asked more frequently than I could count whether he was the real deal or just his father’s son. My answer was always the same: both.

The Conservatives knew from his very first day that they would, at some point, face him in a greater capacity than what he held at present. They couched their nervousness of him in words of belittlement, and then, in one of the sad ironies of politics, would bring a constituent over to him and ask for his autograph. Those of us around him just shook our heads — in mild disgust for how he was treated, and of quiet respect for his signing every autograph.

People never thought he’d win his Papineau riding during his first campaign against a popular Bloc member — yet he did. When he took up the challenge for charity by stepping into the ring with celebrated fighter and senator Patrick Brezeau, Conservatives said he be KO’d in the first round and couldn’t win — yet he did. By the time Justin won the Liberal leadership it was clear the seeds of determination and leadership resided in him.

And now we know the rest of the story.

When one Conservative operative said at the campaign’s outset that he hoped Trudeau would wear his pants to the first debate, he represented the hollow tones of the government’s bravado and irreverence. The Liberal leader not only arrived well-attired, but with a sense of respect for the Canadian people and their distinctiveness that the government had never understood in their entire nine years of office.

By the time the leaders moved into the Munk debate on Canada’s role in the world, Trudeau was already putting to bed the notion that he just wasn’t ready for the job. It now appears that Trudeau and his young team were far more composed than Harper and his experienced professionals. In a great irony, he was rising and the others weren’t.

It does us well to remember — those of us who can — what advantages Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, had going into his first election for prime minister. In 1968 the country was still lost in the glow and pride of the Centennial year that had just ended. Trudeau was replacing Lester Pearson, who was retiring after significant accomplishments as PM. Pierre’s win was hardly surprising, and the forces arrayed around him had already been in the previous government.

The son had precious little of these advantages. He was leading a party many had said was just one election away from extinction. They had been decimated in previous campaigns and left broke as a result. When Stephen Harper called for the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history, pundits spoke of how the Prime Minister would have an extra few rounds to pummel the youngster in the business of politics.

We now know how foolish that was, just as we understand that, perhaps without realizing it at first, the Canadian people were longing for a change that they couldn’t quite describe but which resonated in their collective spirit once Justin Trudeau called it forth. What the son accomplished was infinitely more complex and difficult than his father’s first win and yet it was just as stellar.

Bruce Anderson, writer and pollster, on election night made the striking claim that this had been a “campaign for the ages.” Seasoned heads on the television set nodded in affirmation.

It turns out that Justin Trudeau caught the spirit of citizens and mood of the country just right. But a far greater task lies before him: to lift a noble people even higher in their pursuit of prosperity, equality of opportunity and compassion.

Judging from his election performance, we shouldn’t put it past him.

More Than Buildings

Ater b and w

“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.

 

 

 

 

A Life More Important Than Words – Citizen Engagement Podcast (33)

The genius of democracy is not how right, or even how smart we are.  It is how open we are to find compromise that will permit us to move ahead as a citizenry.  Our present democratic state is mired in rigidity, in policies that won’t budge, and in characters than think having a strong opinion is the same as possessing strong truth.  No leader can deliver us from this and no government can legislate an open mind.  There’s work to do and humility is the one great essential if we are to succeed.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

A Crisis of Power

Powerless+Structures,+Fig+101+boy+on+rocking+horse+4It’s a voice increasingly coming from the economic periphery and gaining more traction the longer it takes for global economies to get up off the mat.  While not exactly the voice of doom, as in apocalyptic, it nevertheless speaks of a coming world where limited choices will lead to a reprioritization of how we spend and how governments will behave in a time of diminishing returns.

Gwynn Dyer, for example, in a syndicated article in the London Free Press this past weekend, speaks of the “lethal consequences for a large part of the human race,” if we don’t reign in our fossil fuel consumption.

There’s no predetermined path out there, no clock-like scheme, hovering over us and leading to an increasingly risky future, merely an endless consumerism and a prolonged array of government choices that place a higher priority on economics than human preservation and adaptation.  Speaking in the midst of the last Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt developed a maxim that, while painfully true in his time, takes on an ever greater poignancy today:  “We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics.”

Naturally, the vast majority of voices in almost every discipline think this a little shrill and excessively negative, but as time goes on we have that sinking feeling we’re running out of options.  We go into each recession feeling it will end in a few months, then feel encouraged when economists boast of 3% or 5% growth in the future – predictions that largely materialize.  And yet with each recovery we find unemployment continuing to escalate – growth seems increasingly contingent on less labour.  As unionized workers continue to decline, our ability to protect workers becomes more vulnerable and, sadly, workers begin to turn against their unionized brothers and sisters.

Although many conclude that poverty is relative and that the poor are better off than, say two decades ago, we continue to see a growing gap between rich and poor that continues even after recessions end.  Homelessness increases.  Those vulnerable to mental health conditions are increasingly less resourced.  Food bank numbers grow to alarming heights.  And yet all this continues to transpire even after recessions conclude.

Farmers are losing their businesses.  Students are opting to keep out of university because they either can’t afford it going in or in exiting with massive debts.  Seniors are heading back to work and twenty-five year veteran employees are headed for the breadlines. 

We perhaps see it the most clearly in our communities, where we can no longer afford the quality of life and feelings of optimism that infused our parents.  We are told we can’t afford public housing, public transportation, public libraries, public health systems, public infrastructure, public post offices or even public education.  There are private alternatives to all of these things, and though we remain doubtful as to whether they are cheaper, we are nevertheless told we can no longer live as we want to.

But just to be clear: this isn’t what we wanted, right?  True, we enjoyed the food brought in from thousands of miles away, but we didn’t mean to put local growers out of work as a consequence.  Yes, we elected good people to politics who now seem so fully ineffectual, but we didn’t realize partisanship would get so completely out of hand, correct?  We’ve actually reached the stage as a citizenry where we turn on teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, etc. and yet glorify teen idols and sports superstars, who really have no understanding of how we live and who have no influence over our children that doesn’t involve riches and fame. 

This is not what we signed up for as a citizenry.  We know that the ranks of millionaires and billionaires is growing globally but regard that wealth as out of reach until we realize it’s also out of control.  There was once a time in this country where taxes for ports, railroads, airports, rural roads, culverts, and water supplies came largely from companies that leveraged their profits from such amenities.  But most wealthy don’t make their money off of such things anymore.  They make money from money, from investing and dealing.  We ask so little of them anymore and yet the level of investment abandoned by such firms can hardly be made up by taxing the middle-class alone.  They demand governments invest in various kinds of deregulation and tax breaks, leaving the running of a huge country with a small population up to average working people who can neither afford it or take full advantage of it.

And now we discover that the vague stirrings of a global economic meltdown might actually have some substance to them.  We are told that oil, food, and other amenities dependent upon fossil fuels is about ready to escalate beyond what we thought possible.  We understand as a people, and as communities, that the amount of money made in a single day would simply blow away any other time preceding ours, and yet it increasingly lands less and less in our communities, our hopes for our children, our plans for our cities.  All that money; so little hope.

All of these things are ours to change.  We established a democratic order specifically to enact fairness, opportunity and innovation through legislative equity.  So we can change it.  We can demand a greater economic accounting from our governments, our lending institutions, corporations and ourselves. But we’re not there yet and the road is about to get much steeper until we are ready.

 

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