The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

The Dangers of Coping

They arrived in a manila package at our Calgary home one day, sometime in 1956. Our family gathered around as Dad pulled out the architectural drawings and laid them on the table. They were plans for how to construct and stock a bomb shelter in case of an atomic war. A large silver siren located on top of a long white pole occasionally reminded us of that fact, as occasionally it would emit a practice wail in preparation for the real thing.

For an entire generation of Canadians, none of this is strange. The Cold War was actually heating up and the threat to human existence always seemed to hang precariously in the balance. Popular music and movies were always there to remind us of the threat. The euphoria of the end of the great global conflict in 1945 didn’t last long, as both the Soviet Union and the United States made their fearful moves for world domination. But the decades following took on something of a standoff between the superpowers until the Soviet Union collapsed some 25 years ago. The era of a renewed internationalism began, along with a boost in confidence for a more peaceful future.

Suddenly the term “Cold War” has made a rapid comeback. Even before the recent American election, USA Today spoke of, “A New Cold War?” and CNN ran as one of its headlines: “Cold War-style conflict.” This past week, the Toronto Star reported of apocalypse survival food kits being sold by Costco Canada. This country, which has historically been one of the key boosters of internationalism, is now looking on in mild alarm as nationalism not only flourishes south of the border and in key European states, but is subtly emerging in various Canadian contexts, including the Conservative leadership race.

This country is finding itself impinged in the vice between nationalism and internationalism. Trump’s bewildering sense of American identity represents just as much a challenge to Justin Trudeau as Vladimir Putin’s rampant militarism. This isn’t just about nuclear weapons, but cyber warfare and the flagrantly hostile actions of Russia over other nations. In such a context, peacekeeping and good intentions seem somehow underwhelming. As Robert Legvold, political scientist and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, sees it, “we have entered a second Cold War, only perhaps more dangerous because of the unstable global environment and the more modern challenges of cyber warfare and terrorism.”

The Cold War might be returning for another round of global freezing, but this time it’s different. Where the United States and its partners made direct military interventions in places like Vietnam, Korea, even Bosnia, you’ll see nothing similar in Crimea or the Ukraine, where Russia roams with menace. And as China brandishes its might in the South China Sea, we seem to have entered a period of great uncertainty where Canada, like other nations, must reassess the manner of its own engagement in such a turbulent world.

With a fractured Western coalition and a surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic that is frequently isolationist in nature, Canada is seeking to walk a fine line between playing a global role for progress and keeping its own domestic house from fracturing. Of the two, the latter is more subtle and likely more dangerous.

Former American diplomat George Kennan, who wrote much of the book on how to contain the old Soviet Union, threw out a warning that Canada, like every other nation, must abide by if the present world isn’t to fall into a new era of threat and darkness: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Communism isn’t the greatest threat to peace in this new Cold War, nor is it Putin. Rather, it is the embedded nationalism that threatens to turn peaceful and tolerant nations into narrow and irreconcilable ones.

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

How Grief Defines and Ennobles Us

We all reach a stage in life when grief and a sense of loss go from being sudden events to our constant companions. In numerous conversations in the last few weeks, I have been struck by just how many people are moving through the various stages of grief and seeking to infuse their own lives with meaning as they have come face to face with their mortality.

It seems to be happening at every level – from the loss of celebrity figures like David Bowie or Stuart Maclean in recent months, to those losing hope for peace in a troubled world. An entire generation of Baby Boomers has reached the age where they are saying gentle and painful farewells to parents in their final days. Suddenly tears seem something sacred and heartbreak leads to a sense of closeness.

Every day throughout our community such experiences are played out in ways most of us will never know. Like some kind of institution, grief is ever-present among us but goes unnoticed. Occasionally it catches us unaware, as when we spot a funeral procession on its way to the cemetery or when we spot the sad crescendo of tears by someone incapacitated outside the emergency room. It is in the darkened face of one on the edge of losing their faith in humanity because of all the conflicts, or the person who looks at an old photo album they haven’t open for years. In most cases, such events never make the news or rise to public consciousness but they nevertheless define the daily life of citizens and are therefore important.

There is always the tendency to wish grief to end, to release its dismal hold on our emotions. Yet it endures because we must always be reminded that for a time we had something special in our lives and our crying out in pain is but a reflection of just how valued that presence was. The tears are the down payment we pay for the ongoing memory of what we have lost and still treasure. It is just as the old Jewish proverb reminds us: “We fear to love what death can touch.” But once we overcome that fear and begin a relationship with someone that we value then it is inevitable that the pain will strike us when she or he is gone. And yet we do it – we continue to reach out for what inspires us. When we are young we don’t think about what we could lose; when we are older we can’t forget it.

Recently I reached out to a friend in Britain who had suffered an unexplainable loss. Endeavouring to be supportive, I sent some words of encouragement. She wrote me back with an anonymous quote that spelled grief out for me in a fashion I will never forget:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Love with no place to go.” Most of us endure this each day and yet continue on because, really, what can we do? We can’t bring what we treasured back to us. We understand that grief loses some of its intensity over time, but we never overcome the longing. We feel the loss deeply because that person once stretched our minds and our spirits to new heights and depths. Our grief is a reminder that their memory is yet with us, stirring our emotions, and encouraging us to get on with life. Just as knowledge builds the mind and exercise strengthens the body, grief uniquely ennobles our soul and spirit.

All those who grieve are baptized into the fragility of all that is human. And yet the pain’s presence in our lives is but a reminder that, in some unexplainable way, what we have lost is yet with us. Our grief is the price we pay for the privilege of having that person still present within us even though they are gone. They yet whisper in our ear, arouse our spirits and not just our memories, reminding us that we not only loved them deeply but that we were capable of getting beyond ourselves and embracing a greater life. Their presence in our lives through grief means we can still perform that remarkable act of transformation.

History’s Revenge

 

It all seems so long ago, yet in reality it was less than 30 years since that remarkable time in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and capitalism appeared poised to launch the world into a new, more equitable era. My wife, Jane, was there and wrote Lincoln’s famous words on the wall: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   British journalist Timothy Garton Ash famously called those remarkable few days “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”

Almost two million East Germans crossed over to the West in the next few days. Communist regimes began falling like dominoes – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Two years later the Soviet Union was disbanded. Numerous conflicts ended and the number of refugees decreased as a result. More nations became democratic and it felt as if a whole new world was in the process of being born.

What happened? That was just a generation ago. Now we’re talking walls, travel bans, dismantling trade deals, more refugees, multiple threats to economies, the possible breaking down of climate change efforts, rising terrorism, a confused international order, and significant anger at different levels. As the good folks at Freedom House reminded us not too long ago, the democracy we have believed in is undergoing more threats and decline than at anytime in the past quarter of a century.

It’s likely that during that headier time we sat back and delighted in watching democracy and capitalism wend their way through traditionally autocratic regions when we should have been using all the momentum to also reform our own institutions in the developed and affluent world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the real question was if democracy and capitalism were up to the challenge of this new world? It should have been repeatedly asked, but the West, in trying to export these twin ideas to the newly liberated nations, was too busy to consider upgrading its own beleaguered political and economic infrastructures.

Now it’s our turn, as political, social and financial upheaval threaten the established order in ways that surprise us. Did we honestly ever consider that the banning of millions of Muslims from America was actually going to happen, or even doable? Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over and prosperity just around the corner for everyone? It’s tough to address such queries because they are still being played out. We have yet to see if the growing pushback against extremist forces will be sufficient to reduce the overall danger to the planet.

What we are witnessing is history’s revenge. It’s what happens when people place history’s hard gotten gains on cruise control. By always assuming that economic and social progress was a natural development we overlooked the steep sacrifices paid to provide such opportunities. Power had morphed and we weren’t on top of it. For former German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer it was as though the emperor had lost his clothes. As he told author Moises Naim: “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places.”

And now we are discovering the same thing. It’s neither universal nor total, but the trend towards political and financial dysfunction is clear, leaving social damage in its wake. Canada is in the fortunate position of perhaps shaping these effects, but only if we form a united front against those leaders and movements that would seek to reintroduce the demons of history that we once thought vanquished. Making room for racism, xenophobia, online bigotry, and outright hatred will quickly strip us of the moral sinew required to steer a more principled course into the future.

To that must be added the urgency of defeating inequality, and creating effective environmental legislation, a sense of solidarity among all Canadian citizens, and the belief that the strides we have made in the past must be continually guarded against decay. Civil society must begin the hard work of softening the rough edges of a more violent world.

Those more troubling aspects of history are now biting back, restless to release their havoc upon a confused and alarmed world that had once hoped for something better. To survive the troubling years ahead the secret isn’t so much to put the genie back into the bottle, but to create equitable institutions and systems that better the entire world and not merely the few.

 

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