The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Politics

Trust vs Trustworthy

She possesses a unique file that includes the disciplines of philosopher, politician, policy maker, author and public figure willing to challenge the preconceptions of the day. A powerful woman thinker in her native Britain, Baronness Onora O’Neill was recently awarded a $1 million prize for lifetime achievement in the fields of philosophy and public service.

Intriguingly, O’Neill refuses to jump on whatever is fashionable at the moment, opting to discover those deeper traits that she believes are the only things that can save humanity from its ongoing fascination with itself. No doubt it emanates from the woman’s remarkable diverse background – former principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and was chairperson of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and prolific author on matters of justice, human rights and human trust. O’Neill remains professor emeritus of philosophy at Cambridge.

Which is what drew me into her orbit. I was intrigued by her belief that in a world of relentless facts (and fake facts), something must emerge that can tie all these discoveries together in a manner that makes humanity better and not merely smarter or distracted. She had performed endless work on the subject of “trust” and how its loss also means humanity’s loss in the end. Her TED talk on the subject, found here, has been viewed almost 1.5 million times.

Drawing from her vast experience, O’Neill challenges conventional wisdom, as when she declares that a distracted modern world, its citizens and leaders, would do better to focus on what is morally right than to produce a particular outcome. The significant $1 million prize she was awarded was given because of her efforts at, “improving self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social change.” At 76 years of age, she is deceptively modern in her understand of humanity’s social ills.

She is now perhaps best known for the distinction she draws between “trust” and “trustworthiness.” O’Neill understands why people have lost faith in institutions and one another, but maintains that such divides can’t be overcome merely by trusting others. Our time would be better spent on becoming more trustworthy ourselves, so that the bonds of humanity could be enhanced and expanded.

Trust, left to itself, can leave us naïve and vulnerable. But as we build our own characters to level where we can be counted upon to be transparent, honest and accountable, we not only guard ourselves against being played, we also lay the groundwork for humanity itself to lay a stronger groundwork on how it deals with itself. If we can’t find a way to trust politics, the media, or law, then there is no effective collective roadmap ahead to help us deal with our great challenges. It’s just as bad to be a self-centered politician who can only see things from one’s own experience, as it is to be one that is overly ambitious, judgmental or hyper-partisan. The same holds true for citizens.

And key to all this, she maintains, is the need for philosophy – that ability to view our modern societies from outside of themselves and the need to make ourselves the centre of everything. The smarter and more aware we become, she maintains, the more vulnerable we become at distrusting anything that has to do with humanity. In the end we become so jaded that we become more untrustworthy ourselves and unwilling to reach across our differences to establish a more connected society.

This all gets back to Mahatma Gandhi’s premise that we become, “the change we wish to see in the world.” We can’t save our world without saving ourselves, and we can’t change it without changing ourselves. Instead of always placing institutions and individuals in the dock of judgment, we must find ways in which we examine ourselves – our flaws and potentials – and become the kind of citizens and leaders that people can truly count on for integrity, friendship, connectivity, and, yes, leadership.

Baroness O’Neill has come to believe that the online world has increasingly become the “fractured” place and that the only way to heal ourselves is through the kind of human contact that isn’t stupid, hateful or identity driven, but expansive, connected and character driven. She’s definitely got the background that should drive us to listen and, as she maintains, it’s not as though our present manic world of distrust and disconnectedness is doing a very good job of things. The choice is ours, but having O’Neill’s option before us provides us a broader, more philosophical, view that we should consider.

No Labels

It was bound to occur at some point, but the emergence of the group called No Label became inevitable even years ago as the hper-partisanship of Washington D.C. began to systematically tear down many of the accomplishments and hopes established in America following World War Two.

No Label is a group of Republican, Democrat and Independent lawmakers and supporters committed to the simple premise that it’s time for politics to get off its devolving cycle and start functioning effectively again. As the group put it in one of their press released:

“We understand that there are real philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans, and we don’t expect anyone to check their principles at the door. But we do expect our elected officials to replace the politics of partisan point-scoring with the politics of productive problem-solving.”

The rationale behind the movement is a simple but clear one: citizens have had enough and no longer trust their government to solve their greatest challenges and problems. The group launched back in 2010, recognizing even back then that the madness had already gone on far too long. Now, years later, its need has become even more pronounced. They have asked citizens to join the movement, while at the same recognizing that the current president and Congress might have to be swept away before the real reform can begin.

At present, the group includes over 70 what they term as “bipartisan” members – evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Understanding that Donald Trump has no interest in supporting their efforts, the group produced a hopeful paper titled The Policy Playbook for America’s Next President. Inside of five years, No Labels has signed up over half a million supporters from all states and established student chapters on 100 college campuses.

The problems with initiatives like this is that what sounds great on paper is often impossible to deliver on, and people become cynical as a result. Yet perhaps the process is the important aspect here – dozens of lawmakers seeking to work out their differences, even enduring opposition from their own parties, is itself a remarkable thing in a Trump and divided Congress era. Perhaps it’s about preparing the field for future harvest instead of being overrun by weeds. If so, then No Labels spells hope in a darkening era, even for Canada’s growing grumpy Parliament and provincial assemblies.

Mass Flight

The continuing meltdown of Venezuela’s economy is drawing increasing worry in global circles, and not just about finance. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was right to warn about the regional effects, including a pending refugee crisis. As she noted recently:

“I do think. . . this is a humanitarian crisis as well as a political one. We are seeing the real preventable suffering of the people of Venezuela.   And I think . . . there are mounting signs of a regional refugee crisis as well. Colombia and Brazil are facing a lot of pressure. So I think it is an area where Canada needs to be very engaged.”

Given all that’s transpiring on the refugee file around the globe, it’s easy to overlook the threat in Central and South America. Financial mismanagement, political upheaval and the reduced price of oil are placing entire regions at risk and at some point citizens in the region are going to look about for better prospects elsewhere.

The sheer scope of the refugee file guarantees that it will become one of the top developments of this century, with no sign of abatement. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reminds us that that 65.6 million people are displaced worldwide, with only 189,300 refugees resettled in 2016.   Some 55% of current refugees come from only three countries – South Sudan (1.4million), Afghanistan 2.5 million, and Syria (5.5 million). It’s difficult to imagine this protracted problem getting any better when 28,300 people are forced from their homes every day – that’s 20 people forcibly displaced every minute.

Professor Jennifer Welsh of the European University in Florence, and also of Oxford University, asked Canadians in her recent Massey Lectures to consider the refugee problem from a different angle.

“If the total population of displaced persons today constituted a nation, it would be larger than the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, and significantly larger than Canada. One in every 113 human beings is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum, and more than half of them are children.”

The term used for this phenomenon is “mass flight,” and it represents the largest movement of humanity in history – greater even than the displaced number of people following World War Two. The movement of such a great stream of humanity roaming the globe is destined to impact virtually every country on earth. Prosperous Western nations, like those in Europe, Canada, and the United States already feel they are handling the bulk of the burden, but the reality is something quite different.

Of the top five host countries for refugees, not one is from the West. Jordan has taken in more than 2.7 million people. Second is Turkey is with 2.5 million, followed by Lebanon and Pakistan each with 1.6 million people. In Lebanon, that means 183 out of every 1,000 inhabitants are refugees. The next nations in line are Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad. These are the nations bearing the world’s burden from violence, climate change, political upheavals and tribal wars.

Nevertheless, Europe is under tremendous strain from mass flight (one million), with Germany taking in one-third of Europe’s refugees. In fact, for most refugees, their number one preferred destination is the European continent, but most don’t have the means for getting there. The sudden presence of so many people is causing increasing turbulence in European nations, with some elections being largely decided by the threat some citizens see from the immigration and refugee crisis.

While this week the Government of Canada said it would be admitting some 300,000 immigrants and refugees each year, America is threatening to move in the opposite direction as a result of the Trump Doctrine and the country’s declining financial prospects.

There appears to be no end in sight regarding this global crisis and this present’s a troubling portent regarding political stability in the Western world. Unless headway is made in those nations from which the bulk of refugees emanate, then host nations will forever be reacting to global pressure instead of taking leadership. More money must be put into foreign aid and development, peacekeeping, women’s programs and infrastructure if we are to stem the refugee. That will take many years of dedicated planning, global partnerships, and generosity, perhaps even military intervention to safeguard improvements made. Are prosperous nations ready to tackle the problem of mass flight at the source? Unless that occurs, the term “mass flight” will soon become important part of our human lexicon.

Opting In by Opting Out

One of the consequences of missing the mark on predicting the future is not only confusion, but disillusionment. It’s happening with democracy at this moment in time, leaving many feeling more isolated from the political process than ever.

An example is what has occurred with the activities of mass media or social media. Futurists used to say that these new forms of communicating news and information would bring citizens deeper into the political process, leading to a democratic renaissance. In reality, we have discovered that what has occurred in recent years actually completed the alienation of people from politics and from one another. Throughout the process, anger levels remain troublingly high.

Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle used this troubling reality as the title of his recent column – “Americans Are Addicted to Outrage.” His opening paragraph on social media’s effect on our citizenship put it right out there:

“Addiction compels you to chase a high that only makes you feel worse; it reduces you to a lesser version of yourself. And you can’t stop because deep down you don’t really want to change.”

You don’t really want to change. That is one compelling statement, considering we live in a era of vast change and we often want to help lead it. And it ultimately leads to our sense of isolation and ineffectiveness.

This all brings us back to the “image versus substance” argument so prevalent 30 years ago. George Orwell’s 1984 pictured Big Brother’s total monopoly of the media machine and it all ultimately led to systemic slavery. Like it or not, and often without realizing it, the modern citizen is molded and activated by the subtle ramifications portrayed through todays media – social and, increasingly, traditional.

New venues for communication ought to have enriched democracy, and to a certain degree they have. This was the great hope of the early pioneers of radio and television, and for a number of decades it appeared as though the potential for the technology was being realized. The media served the democratic experience well enough as an important and controversial mediating voice for citizens, a corrective mechanism that analyzed power and at times checked its abuses. In a real way, the media empowered its readers and viewers, primarily by providing them with the much-needed information they required to make enlightened decisions.

Yet, over time, the media lost its way by gravitating towards a subtle form of elitism, often converging its own views with those of the political and financial establishment. In the process it increasingly failed in its purpose to democracy and citizens began to scatter. In response, traditional media began pursuing heat as opposed to light. In its place came social media, fervent in its belief that it could reconnect people to the important issues of the day. All of us hoped it would speak adequately on our behalf because it would be us doing the communicating and creating a place for ourselves in the political debate and change politics as a result.

Now, over a decade later, we are flummoxed. Increasingly we discover that friends and associates are attempting to reconnect with themselves and one another by signing off of Facebook, Twitter and the other digital options. Connecting by disconnecting – that’s not how it was supposed to work. In a frenetic world of loud opinions, people are increasingly craving the quiet voice. Instead of ranting they seek reflection. And in the place of endless new information they look for timeless values that have endured for millennia. Yates, the poet, predicted such a state when he wrote of people who discover, “the visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” Sadly, citizens have all too frequently been reduced to the role of sullen spectators, perplexed and frequently lost in a vast array of opinions instead of truth.

None of this bodes well for democracy, which calls on citizens to struggle for collective progress as opposed to individual causes that remain isolated from broader realities.

Where does all this leave us? To return to David Von Drehle’s column, which might be democracy’s best hope for the moment:

“So we’re left to get ourselves sober. Switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things.”

The Lost Art of Disagreement

What makes for a thankful city, a grateful community? Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to ask that question.

Our divisions can overtake what are some of the great qualities of this city. Divisive opinions abound, while common purpose becomes rare. It’s tough to adopt a collective thankful culture while all this is going on.  We’re not alone though; the entire world seems in an increasingly grumpy state.

A recent lecture by U.S. journalist and political commentator Bret Stephens in Sydney, Australia, created quite a buzz online and sheds some light on why a sense of collective gratitude seems harder to come by.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephens bemoaned what he termed “the dying art of disagreement.” While finding agreement is necessary for communities to move ahead, Stephens nevertheless affirmed that disagreement is just as fundamental, reminding his audience that Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks and many other esteemed figures were once in the ranks of those who disagree.

It’s how we disagree that has gone through such a fundamental change, he believes, and the effects are eroding our communities. We’re not talking about the trolls or haters here, but average citizens who care about where they live.

“We seem to disagree about everything,” he said. “We judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”

He could be talking about London. He trots out research to show citizens everywhere are having trouble getting things together and their politics have become dysfunctional as a result.

“The distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

Stephens observed that our online behaviour is hurting our lot as citizens, saying we “increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer have just our own opinions. We also have our own separate facts.”

Such a condition leaves a community inflexible, as the rigidity of our opinions make compromise and respect rare commodities. Everything becomes personal. People get offended and the desire to come together for the sake of community recedes into our past.

As Stephens noted, the consequence of all this has made “the distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

London’s recent experiences regarding how we will transport people in the future and the state of downtown development have left chasms so deep and voices so entrenched that one wonders whether compromise is even possible. We frequently blame our politicians for the quagmire when all too frequently they are distracted by efforts to keep us from destroying one another.

If our disagreements, and the manner in which we express them, leave us in a kind of permanent enmity, then it remains hard to imagine how such a divided city can effectively lobby for greater investments, whether from the private sector or from senior levels of government.

There must be some sort of process for healing within our community — an ability to restore London’s wholeness and sense of potential. By remaining divided, we become lesser versions of ourselves and our ability to build a highly functional, inclusive and prosperous city is compromised.

And the longer we take to forgive one another or re-engage in a spirit of conciliation, the harder it will be to pull ourselves up off the mat.

We must begin again the exercise of self-government and not just leave everything to the political class. The essence of democracy is that the people themselves create those conditions in which they wish to live. We need a renewed collective commitment to achieve what we can only accomplish as a community that is rich in opinions and ideas but not destroyed by them.

Thinking of how we might live together, Aristotle said “the city comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”

This is what most Londoners seek: a good life.

The potential lying at the heart of our community will never be realized by our politics alone — that should be clear enough to us by now — but also by our innate sense of fair play, of respect for opinions, and for the common desire to build the kind of city in which our families wish to remain.

There is no better time than Thanksgiving weekend to acknowledge our need of one another and our wish to build a better city through all the various ideas brought together in respect and action.

Let’s be thankful that we are still capable of it.

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