The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Non-partisanship

The Only Way Forward

“When civility is illusory, war is inevitable,” wrote author Steve Maraboli not long ago. You don’t have to look very far for verification of his claim. While people will make nice in the next couple of weeks for Donald Trump’s inauguration, it won’t be real and it won’t be effective at creating cooperation.

We are increasingly living in a world where there is little common space where people of different opinions can hang up their weapons of verbal combat at the door before they partake in productive policy exchanges. There is already blood on the streets of Washington D.C. but it’s just not the literal kind. People are learning to hate, despise, mock, jeer, troll, attack, belittle and demean at levels rarely seen in the public space. And it plays itself out in local hangouts, the various forms of media, and even at the recent Golden Globe awards.

Suddenly “being nice” isn’t so nice anymore. Even progressives who mocked Donald Trump’s arrogance and rhetoric have turned ugly as a result of the election. But this isn’t about who won; it’s about who voted. Trump successfully garnered over 60 million votes on his way to victory (yes, I know, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote).   This wasn’t just some muckraker who bludgeoned his way to the White House. Donald Trump capitalized on the angst citizens were feeling towards the political system. Like it or not, he connected with voters in ways that were stunning. And the point is that he had the help of millions of Americans. This was a troubled democracy in action, for all its foibles.

The key now isn’t for those who lost to pour out their wrath on every political institution, but to begin the hard process of creating fair and respectful places of dialogue and debate in the public arena in order to bite back on the encroaching hatred. In democracy, the winners are supposed to be the citizens – they voted freely and are expected to abide by the results, whether or not they like it. But if both sides – winners and losers – remain angry at one another, no one will win.

If Americans want to halt the decline, it won’t be by electing Republicans or Democrats, but by rising above their own disenchantment and anger. It has been clear for decades that the partisanship of the professional political classes has become increasingly dysfunctional, regardless of which party held the power. This is what politics has become in many countries, and not just in America. Its only solution is to discover new ways of showing respect, creation places for consideration and dialogue, even when we don’t feel like it. Or as Kevin Stirtz put it: “To work best democracy needs a diversity of thoughts, ideas and expression. This is only possible with civility.”

“I hold to the idea that civility, understood as the willingness to engage in public discourse, is the first virtue of citizens” … Mark Kingwell

In an era where everyone looks to venues to give their opinions, it is vital to remember that democracy’s strength isn’t in its opinions but in its consensus. Unless this is achieved among citizens and politicians, democratic decline is inevitable. Civility doesn’t get in the way of truth but is rather what is required to make truth discoverable in the public arena. Exercised properly, civility opens the door to consensus by keeping the players in the room long enough to establish common ground.

The key to recovering our political health is to interact with those we might disagree with without holding their opinion against them. The point isn’t to best them, but to find accommodations so that we can live together based on our commonalities, while yet respecting our distinctions.

These are hard truths, but then again these are hard times for democracy. It is all about making civil society real. If our political representatives can’t do it because of party affiliations, then the millions of citizens who no longer belong to such parties must find ways of making politics real and workable again. There is no diversity without tensions, but neither should their be public spaces without respect. Far from being passé or redundant, civility might prove our only way forward.

A House Divided

Republican Presidential Candidate and Businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a rally in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA, USA, 18 February 2016. The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is 20 February 2016. ANSA/RICHARD ELLIS Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in a Breaking Down Barriers town hall campaign event at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, USA, 24 February 2016. The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary is 27 February 2016. ANSA/ERIK S. LESSER

Read this post on Huffington Post here

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up … Now some of these folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not Americans.”

What are we to do think of this? Is it even right? When Hillary Clinton stated this on a campaign stop, she was sick, clearly fatigued, and likely fed up with all spiteful rhetoric coming from the other side. We get that. But one wonders if it’s ever a good thing when a candidate, especially for president, to speak about voters in such toxic words – even claiming some aren’t Americans. It’s not because the customer is always right, it’s just that the voting citizen is usually holding the power to decide who wins in such a vital campaign.

But there’s a larger story and it’s a global one. As politics in the affluent West continues to flatten out and lose its lustre and support from average citizens, people become divided, sometimes to the extremes. Gender inequality, poverty, immigration, refugees, austerity economics – these and much more are pressing voters in countries around the world closer to margins of intolerance and it gets us to some things unthinkable a generation ago. Normally tolerant people are getting frustrated with the inability of their political leaders to ease the tension points of modern life.

Millions, for good or ill, might be fascinated by Donald Trump, but the fissures dividing the various populations across the European continent show the extremes all this can lead to. In places like Austria, France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Italy, and Finland, right-wing nationalism is on the rise as growing disillusion with the European Union, millions of refugees, and sluggish economies induce normally centrist nations to veer to the right.

Such movements, spread across a large number of nations, have caused many to wonder if Europe’s progressive tolerance is sliding back into a more extreme age. It certainly appears that way, and as the number of European elections is played out in these next two years that sentiment might actually be confirmed in troubling terms. Normally liberalized populations appear tired of affirming that certain liberties must be placed aside for the common good. Right now they are seeing nothing common or good in what is going on and their voting priorities are shifting, at least temporarily.

In many of these countries, the intolerance was speeded up by spokespeople from the status quo “tolerance” camp and their denunciations of many of their citizens as xenophobes, Islamophobes, homophobes – in short, the language Hillary Clinton used in her campaign speech. When civilized society feels okay about demonizing others in the name of tolerance, you have a problem that doesn’t necessarily require Donald Trump to become president to alienate much of the population. When the politics of resentment comes from the Left, the Right, and even the Centre, the road to democratic decline appears like an open freeway.

The current politics of labeling and resentment is dangerously coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Citizens themselves will hold hard to opinions across that spectrum as well and this must be respected. But what we require is a context where our differences are discussed with respect and a sense of compromise. Donald Trump has delighted in blowing that pretense out of the water. Making alienated people even angrier is his modus operandi, but it’s a foolish game to utilize similar techniques on the opposing side. Many Democrats and Independents are feeling isolated, too, but the majority are progressive in their leanings and should those they look to for leadership dumb down the conversation into heated name calling, not of the opposing candidates, but citizens themselves, then the fight for a common place of respect is finished. That will be true in coffee shops or in Congress itself, as we have seen in recent years.

Even if Hillary Clinton was right in her definition of Trump’s followers, she was wrong to exacerbate tensions already at a boiling point. America can’t be a light to the world if it continues to present itself as a divided house falling into civic darkness. Since both Clinton and Trump speak frequently of how they respect Abraham Lincoln, they should hearken to his words: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

 

Shaken, But Not Stirred

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I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

Canada Through Obama’s Eyes

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WHAT IS CANADA’S PURPOSE?  ONE YEAR AGO today that answer might have been a little more muddled than today. As the world around us tumbled about, challenging our traditional set of norms and understandings, our country had seemed, for a number of years at least, to be more minimalist than meaningful, more reductionist than radical.

Today, however, there seems to be some stirrings among us as to our potentials and usefulness to the human condition. Listening to Barack Obama speak in Parliament this week about how the important human values aren’t American or Canadian, but universal principles sounded more like something from the 1950s or 1960s than the modern era. What was truly wonderful about his speech was watching the emotional collective countenance of all the political parties present; it wasn’t just Liberals cheering an eloquent president, but everyone in the Chamber. It was almost as if, for a brief moment at least, we were united as to our unique place in the world and our purpose within it. People of all political persuasions stood as one at the altar of a progressive humanity.

At the core of every country’s ideals is a deep yearning for identity, for who we are, what we mean, and why we exist. That’s not true for a great many Canadians, of course, who neither have the inclination or the freedom to spend much time in considering such things. Some are too busy fighting off the rigors of life such as poverty, mental illness, and other pressures to consider the value of a nation.

And yet President’s Obama’s address in Parliament this week nevertheless reminded us that whether we care about it or not, Canada perhaps now carries a pivotal role in world affairs that it didn’t even seek or understand only a few months ago. With the threat of rampant ideology south of the border emerging in a presidential run by Donald Trump, the threat of continual divisiveness in the European Union, Britain’s own threat to destiny due to Brexit, and the imperious reach of Putin’s Russia, Canada appears more and more like a peaceful isle in a troubled sea.

But we are more than mere bystanders, as Obama reminded us. We are an experimental people, in the middle of testing again the ability of the collective spirit to become more inclusive and our politics to maybe become more respectful again. Recent elections in our indigenous communities, provinces and the federal domain were demonstrations that a large portion of this country seeks to be more open than closed, more sustainable that wasteful, and likely more global in reach than local.

This is the Canada that Obama looked out upon this week. Surrounded by numerous forms of political leanings in the House, he was clearly buoyed by a collective multipartisan spirit unlike anything he had experienced in Washington or can be seen in Europe at present. Always with an eye on the global community, for a few moments he looked at the world through the lens of a nation that is interested in creating a more fair and inclusive human community, and he liked what he saw.

This isn’t about Justin Trudeau and a Liberal government alone, but a collection of political impulses that nevertheless has proved unwilling to tear their country apart in ways that are seen elsewhere. And it is about a citizenry that is more interested in playing its part in the drama. The House wasn’t merely respectful to a visiting dignitary, but to a call of national identity that isn’t so much nationalistic in flavor as it is progressive in outlook.

Whatever the fate of the world in an era of ISIS and strident nationalism, of economic dominance and Internet hatred, Canada displayed again this week its propensity for being a better friend to the nations, a firmer supporter of gender equity and aboriginal justice, a noble force for the better angels of our human nature. We appear to be willingly open to the concept that one nation can contain the diversity of many cultures, but that all of these forces join together to form a collective identity of how to live at peace with one another – surely something the world requires now more than ever.

An American president looked out on a vast land this week and saw it as capable of transcending traditional boundaries of culture and community, and organizing itself so as to be a source of hope to a world that too frequently seeks to divide itself along such lines, sometimes violently.

It appears as though the Canada that Obama witnessed this week is increasingly the Canada that we see ourselves. It remains a noble vision and perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory we are prepared to struggle for it. Happy Canada Day.

Serious Elegance

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You can read this post on National Newswatch here

EVERYONE IN THE ROOM SENSED THAT PAUL MARTIN would be prime minister soon enough. There was an excitement in the air as my wife and I attended a London, Ontario event where Martin, as finance minister, was scheduled to speak on healthcare.

His arrival was met with enthusiasm and he quickly warmed to his audience. Partway into his address a door closed at the rear of the hall and someone quietly entered. People whispered to one another, “It’s Jeffrey Simpson.” While the audience might have appreciated that one of the country’s best-known journalists would attend their event, the effect on Paul Martin was immediate. The finance minister is known as an engaging speaker, but his connection with his audience that evening dissipated as his eye continued to follow Simpson’s progress up the side of the hall. He was more careful, not as bellicose or partisan. While the journalist jotted down a few items in his notebook, it was clear to everyone that his presence had changed the dynamics.

The ultimate moral of this recounting is how experienced journalism can affect our politics. This wasn’t some frantic or wannabe reporter using social media to raise his profile. He was instead an objective witness to events and his insights served to remind the political establishment that accountability still mattered and that a reckoning would surely result the moment political figures ignored that responsibility.

When the Globe and Mail announced this week that Jeffrey Simpson was signing off following a stellar career as a columnist there were the expected plaudits. Starting at the Globe in 1974, he soon became a national affairs columnist. He was no wide-eyed idealist, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and Queen’s University.

There was a kind of serious elegance about him that easily translated to his writing style. The gravitas he exuded served effective notice to the political elites that he saw through their trappings and partisan rhetoric. And he was recognized by his peers as someone who could spend hours researching a topic and just as long in crafting his words that ultimately became his columns. He was awarded all three of Canada’s noted literary prizes, awarded numerous honourary doctorates, and became recognized as one of the country’s leading thinkers on public policy.

So, yes, Simpson has enjoyed an accomplished career, having authored six books in the process. But it was his effect on the Canadian policy establishment, including the politics that so often diffused it, that might prove his ultimate legacy.

Simpson’s 42-year career coincided with massive changes in the news and publishing industries – a transformation that has redefined journalism in the process. Yet his columns remained remarkably sanguine when it seemed as though everyone else was heading off in all directions attempting to catch the latest trend. Knowing effective policy and good politics to be the essence of a healthy democracy, he couldn’t bring himself to pander to the flightiness of the age.

In his The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay recounted the effects of modern journalism’s infatuation with the immediate:

“By focusing exclusively on the events of the day, journalism all but severs the connection between time and eternity. It makes the world appear to be nothing but an endless jumble of events through which it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern anything beyond the relatively base motivations of lust, calculated self-interest, and the will to power. In short, journalism is not able to communicate wisdom.”

To his credit, and that of the newspaper that understood his value, Simpson refused to walk down that path. Instead he did as he always did – engaged his readers with serious insight. In so doing he became the embodiment of esteemed journalist Bob Woodward’s observation: “I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.”

This year has seen the retirement of a number of dedicated columnists who believed that their craft deserved proper and serious context. But as a nation says farewell to Jeffrey Simpson, it is aware that it is losing a refined writer who dealt with them as citizens of the mind as well as passion. Ultimately, it will be his sage observations of accountability and watchfulness that will be missed the most in a political and bureaucratic world all too willing to spin on a dime if it would curry more public favour and influence. We wish him a well-deserved and contented retirement, but our journey from this point forward will be all the more difficult without his elegant writings of public responsibility.

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