The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

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.


Bring On the Lunatics

limitationsToday we start a new series concerning the end of growth and how to learn to live with the new normal.  Really it’s about stasis – ancient Greek term meaning “to stand still”.  Most of us have been sensing this for some time as our communities, economy, citizenship, environmental sustainability and democracy appear mired in inadequacy in a fashion we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.  None of our present institutions has come forward with sufficient solutions to lift all of these dimensions from their doldrums.

It’s time we started telling the truth to one another, especially as it refers to how we plan our economies.  A raft of new books and studies have appeared in recent years that point to our ineffectiveness – the end of growth, a post-democratic era, days of decline, etc.  It’s not the first time the developed world has leveled off, or even declined in such a fashion, but our present predicament in unique in the sheer amount of wealth flowing around the globe.  Canada has never seen so much money moving through its financial sectors and yet a diminishing portion of it filters down to our communities and institutions.  The middle-class is increasingly squeezed every year.  Solutions to poverty now appear farther off than ever before and our country runs the risk of tolerating a permanent society of classes.  A rising number of fellow citizens are working far longer hours for less.  Also rising is the number of unemployed.  Governments are running out of funds at all levels and years of attrition appear to lie ahead.

I think we all sense this but remain reticent to speak honestly with one another lest by even introducing the subject we hasten our days of diminishing returns.  Worse still, our leaders at all levels don’t dare utter such warnings for fear it might undercut and undermine their own validation as elites.  Politicians, public officials, educators, media spokespersons, writers, artists, researchers, even advocates, fear to break with the conventional wisdom of unending growth because they lack any kind of robust solutions to our daunting challenges.  And so they carry on, tinkering around the edges of the status quo because to tell the truth would reveal their own ineptitude.

In their own way, citizens are no different.  Having increasingly dumped on institutions for the better part of two decades, they nevertheless show little inclination to pull themselves together in ways that compensate for the dysfunction of the political order.  At both ends of the democratic spectrum – governors and governed – the ability to speak truth to power has lost any salience because no one is really sure what the truth is anymore – we are only aware of the consequences of not possessing it.

The greatest danger of all is that, knowingly or unknowingly, we are in the process of slowly training our guns on one another.  As we hearken to our leaders telling us we have less and less financial resources with which to face the future, we begin to witness workers turn on the unemployed or unionized employees, citizens dealing more aggressively with their aboriginal people and vice-versa, the middle-class fighting the marginalized for fewer resources, politicians ignoring their citizens, voters disposing of their ballots, Canadian west and east duking it out, political parties seeking to obliterate rather than cooperate, and Canadians maintaining actions clearly hostile to the environment.

The devastating recession we recently endured supposedly ended almost two years ago and yet little is changing.  We know it and we witness the devastating effects on our fellow citizens unable to get ahead of the downward economic pull.

We are instructed repeatedly that we are in precarious times of transition but as long as we get the fundamentals right that we’ll be okay.  When is that going to happen?  This hasn’t been a two-year phenomenon but a decades-old financial and economic model that is leaving more and more on the margins.  And as long as we continue to accept such platitudes and assurances, we will participate in our own decline and disenfranchisement.

We are Western democracies.  That means we can control the levers of government to turn it in favour of the critical mass of citizens.  Well, we used to believe that anyway.  Now we’re informed that globalization has placed true and fundamental reform out of our reach as democracies – markets and their inexorable laws rule.  Then what’s the good of a democracy if we can’t truly alter our fate?

I just finished reading a lengthy book on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.  One of his observations has stayed with me: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”  If that’s the case, then bring on the lunacy because our perceived sanity is not longer effective or even real.  Lunacy is relative.  Diefenbaker felt Pearson was “crazy” for introducing a new flag.  Tommy Douglas was viewed as a Western Canada fanatic for his belief in healthcare.  Let’s have more crazy people just like them because we now live in days of confusion and decline and a little reform might just be the ticket.

But we’re not going to fight for that – at least not yet.  The time will come when economic oppression will cause us to clamour for change and vote accordingly.  But until that moment, let’s spend some time considering the new normal and what it means for us.

Will Canadian Politics Have A Breakthrough?

pain_knot_yogaDoes politics really matter anymore?  The greatest challenges facing our generation are getting short shrift from the major parties as they continue to tinker around the edges and continually seek out that “sweet spot” that will hopefully launch them into power.  The rise of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership has caused a stir, in part because he is viewed as a new leader for a new era.  Trouble is, we still have old problems, and should the new Liberal leader propose incremental policies on files such as climate change or poverty, then he will have wasted his opportunity to take our country in a new direction.  People always say we require bold policies if we are to embrace change, but we yet await that party – any political party – that will actually take the risks and tackle our systemic problems head-on.  Follow the link below to my new Huffington Post piece on why politics won’t matter anymore if we can’t create effective change surrounding our greatest challenges.

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