The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

The Sacrificial Bond

An old sage once observed that, “the greatest sacrifice is when you sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of someone else.” The modern age isn’t so sure of that principle anymore. The term “sacrifice” summons up thoughts of loss, pain, foregoing of resources, even life itself. Our daily lives cater more to the concept of self-improvement and our economic choices frequently reflect that reality. We aim too low.

It remains one of the great ironies of modern life that our heroes are frequently those whose lives barely resemble ours. When Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai visited Ottawa this past week, it was something like a spiritual event. We understood what she had given up in order to raise her voice for the cause of others. Shot in the head for taking a stand, she somehow survived and the power of her sacrificial life humbled young and old, politician and citizen alike.

I recently asked some of my friends who their heroes were. They came from various age groups but their responses were revealing, and strikingly similar: Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Romeo Dallaire, Malala, and pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. There was little mention of leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill and Melinda Gates, though there remains much appreciation for their efforts. Something about the remarkable price paid by people like Mandela, or even Jesus Christ, provides a higher, more refined, definition of sacrifice.

There are various types of sacrifice, of course, ranging from the giving of gifts to a mother’s remarkable devotion, and these things matter to a great enough degree that they benefit society even when largely unacknowledged. But there is a special place we reserve for those who risked it all for the betterment of humanity. Even most of those – soldiers dying in war, for example – remain anonymous. Yet every year we acknowledge what it all means and that we somehow benefitted for the path of devotion that they walked.

The underlying principle of great sacrifice is that the persons paying the cost place greater value on the recipient than themselves. We acknowledge that. But there is more. Somehow that height of a person’s sacrifice creates an intimate bond between giver and receiver. It spans the centuries and doesn’t even require acquaintance with the person. We see it every Remembrance Day, when an entire nation bows its collective head in profound acknowledgement of the men and women who gave their lives so that our lives stood a chance to continue. In effect, it is a bond, a promise if you will, that we will continue to acknowledge what has been done and what we owe.

The greatest effect of this bond is that it protects the relationship and keeps the act of sacrifice sacred over time. Intriguingly, the relationship becomes reciprocal – we honour one another, not out of duty, but from honest devotion. It can last a lifetime, or lifetimes, as the legacy endures.

These words a being written on Easter Sunday morning – an enduring annual celebration on how death ultimately provides life. Billions over the millennia have acknowledged the ultimate sacrifice without ever having known Jesus Christ. It remains an act of ultimate humanity that people can love and appreciate someone they have never known.

The only real hope for our age is that we get beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, to reach for greater things, the bigger life, the enlarged spirit, so that humanity itself can survive. For this we require examples, living and dead, of those who transcended daily concerns in order to give our humanity a fighting chance to prevail. It is the quality of their lives, their essence of doing ultimate good, that reminds us that there is always more that can be done, more people that can be helped, more hope for the world. It is as Martin Luther King Jr. observed and lived:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Thank God such people still strive in our world. Would to God that there were more of them.

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

It’s the Little Things That Matter

When our planet seems to heading off in all directions all at once we face the tendency of following it. Do that for long enough and we end up having opinions without wisdom, goals without direction, and speed without depth. It can leave us all emotionally spent. Consider this observation from David Brooks:

“The noises of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”

There’s that word again – character. We think we know what it means and that it’s who we are. The problem is that it needs to be developed as we get older in order to ground ourselves in a fast-paced world. All too late we frequently discover that our actions are ineffective unless our principles guide them. We end up being all over the map. The big things that really matter in our lives are the vital small things we do repeatedly and that accumulate to the point where we make sound decisions.

Author Benjamin Hardy once asked his readers and interesting question. Given the chance, which would you rather have: $1,000,000 in your pocket right now or a penny that doubles in value for 31 days? Most of us would likely choose the million dollars because it appears more motivating and we get it all at once. But if we followed the penny route we would end up with $10.7 million dollars in a month. The key, of course, is not just deciding correctly, but having the patience to let things build bit by bit. The big payoff comes at the end.

Our modern world always goes for the immediate reward because that’s how things are peddled and advertised to us virtually on every level. But we would be richer if we went for the deeper decision. Character is like that: we keep doing the small things well, growing and learning in the process, until that point in our lives when we are able to rise above the pandemonium of our age through well-developed characters. In the end it will be our repeatedly working on the small things that will help us to achieve our purpose and not just pursue it.

We can spend a lot of time pursuing new opportunities, but if we don’t have a clear idea of the sources of the great meanings in life – love, diligence, discipline, forgiveness, humility, compassion, generosity, truthfulness – and developed them, then we just find ourselves jumping from cause to cause but growing little of substance in the process. We find we lack the internal strengths to develop unwavering commitments and spend our lives skipping across the surface of life, rarely being affected by its depths.

The greatest improvements and decisions in our lives come when our heart is expanded, not just energized. The reward of all that is that our minds become consistently sound and our hearts and choices become dependable.

Most have been taught to believe that our character becomes strong through the hard times and there is clear precedent for that. But it is through the quieter times when no one sees us and we aren’t bent out of shape by circumstances that our character becomes deep and dependable, not just strong. It’s all in the little things done well. It might well be that in a mercurial world it is the working on the deeper attributes that eventually persuades us to choose rightly. That choice is ours and the true rebel of the age is the one that slows down to achieve it.

Winning Is Never Enough

We were still. We were mournful. We were respectful. We were undone.

Last evening we joined a community gathering to honour those who paid the ultimate price at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. The pipes played, the respectful speeches given, and our hearts were moved. We can only glimpse this important Canadian event through a glass darkly. It was before our time and beyond our ability to really understand. Yet we stood in awe last night, although the tragedy and loss was beyond us, because we comprehended that we likely wouldn’t have been where we were at, individually and collectively, at that moment without those remarkable soldiers being where they were at during their exact moment when duty meant total sacrifice.

I was reminded of one of Robertson Davies characters in his Fifth Business. As he watched King George V pin the Victoria Cross on his uniform he experienced a great moment of remarkable clarity:

“Here am I … being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am a hero. But I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened. I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t seem to matter because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of that truth, it might as well be me as anyone else.”

And yet we as Canadians understand the sheer fate of it all – a few feet to the left, a dysfunctional gun, an artillery shell landing farther afield, a medic nearer at hand, and death wouldn’t have visited these particular soldiers. Canada has never been great at the “hero” thing, but we have proved excellent and deeply respectful of lionizing those who never made it. We know in our heart of hearts that we owe them – everything. We know that some 100,000 Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. We also know that 3600 soldiers died and more than 7000 were wounded in the successful attempt.

But we are moved by what we don’t know. The fear, the crying for family, the unbelievable heroism, the prayers, the patriotism, the insanity – these must have been monumental on a human scale. It is not just their death that moves us so; it’s all these things they endured just prior to their ultimate sacrifice. Life’s end should have been better for them.

They are the heroes we seek and we honour them year after year – the resurgence of interest in Remembrance Day is proof of it. But because we are Canadians we venerate them as pioneers of peace instead of merely soldiers of war. War is not glorious to us, but peace remains a preoccupation for the Canadian imagination and those that fought and died a Vimy paid the downpayment for us to stretch that imagination, that dream of a better world with Canada’s noble efforts in it.

Aristotle was right when he wrote that it is never enough to win a war; we must organize ourselves to win the peace. How profound! Perhaps Governor General David Johnston had this in mind when, profoundly moved at the Vimy Memorial in France a few years ago, he implored:

“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost here, and the reasons for which the lives were lost, and that is so our rule of law, our thin veneer of civilization can be strengthened and polished and, we hope, extended around the world.”

I was honoured to be asked to give the speech in Parliament in 2010, when John Babcock, the last Canadian World War One veteran passed away. They are now a generation gone. But we are not. We hate war, but will fight if required. Far better the truly Canadian dream of peace in a better world. We honour the Vimy dead because we still dream that what they were fighting for is now our task. Though dead, they live in us. Though gone, they empower us. Their end is our beginning.

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