The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: progressive centre

Yelling Past One Another

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

“The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency” – Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

Down to You and Me

There is only one way that civil society makes sense, and that’s if we disagree – a lot. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but consider the average coffee shop banter in any local hangout.   You hear friends disagreeing all the time, most often with good-natured humour, but crossing verbal swords nonetheless. If civil society is to work, it must include everyone who wants to take part, and since we are all unique in our opinions and outlook on the world around us, it’s inevitable that there will be just as many points of view as there are people.

A troubling trend in recent years has been the propensity for citizens to expend great energy with those who mostly agree with them, primarily online. It’s natural that human beings seek out likemindedness in others, but if we only end up in separate camps of thought, how can a neighbourhood, a city, a country, even the world, bring all of these constituencies together? Historically, civil society organizations – service clubs, churches, neighbourhood associations, even community-minded businesses – brought together great varieties of people for causes greater than just giving opinions. And to a large degree they worked, not because one viewpoint won out over another, but because people attended to take on a vastly bigger task than merely gathering – supporting charities, building schools (or fighting to keep them open), helping flood victims, holding fundraisers for hospitals or soup kitchens, and so many more worthy initiatives.

It’s important to be civil when in public, but that only serves as the springboard for greater things. To comprehend this better, it’s good to consider how the word civil and polite came about.

Civil originally came from the Latin term civilis, which meant “relating to a citizen” and to his or her ability to move through public life. Politics and polite have similar beginnings. Essentially polite meant “smooth,” denoting the idea not so much of sophistication but the ability to get along well with others. Put all this together and we see that civil society is designed to be populated and empowered by citizens who developed the ability to work together for the community’s good.

It is this precise element that seems to have gone largely missing in our professional politics of the day. Whether it’s due to gross partisanship, animosity, or lack of fitting work experience, the dysfunctional politics on display today can hardly be defined as “smooth” or “civil.” Around much of the world harsh political conflagrations seem to have become the order of the day. With Donald Trump’s inauguration only a few days away, and with the sabre rattling emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, it remains a difficult thing to hold out much hope that the democratic decline in recent decades can be reversed. And as long as citizens themselves remain deeply divided on issues it could be that democracy’s best days are now behind us.

It is up to citizens to see what they make of this – any political success will now depend on their ability to choose and channel their elected representatives towards the great task before us. This isn’t about parties so much anymore but people and it’s unknown if we are up to the task. The old sage Walt Whitman comprehended this truth better than most when he wrote, some ironically, in his By Blue Ontario’s Shore:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,

Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,

Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,

Its Congress is you and me …

Natural and artificial are you and me,

Freedoms, language, poems, employments are you and me,

Past, present, future, are you and me.

 

I dare not shirk any part of myself,

Not any part of America good or bad.

Democracy can only be functional when the great, moving mass of humanity somehow discover a way to bring themselves and their differences to the table and hammer out a future together. Realistically, politics is all about conflict – each person or group or association with their own likes and dislikes. The secret is to manage the tensions – not by merely electing representatives, but being polite and civic ourselves, as citizens. If we can’t accomplish that, then chaos can’t be far off.

 

 

 

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.

2016: The End of History – As We Knew It

This post can be viewed as a National Newswatch column here.

Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man emerged in 1992 – a well-crafted reasoning as to why liberal democracy of the Western variety had become the greatest form of human government. Though a fascinating read, for many who had travelled extensively there was the sense that the author’s predictions weren’t matching what was occurring in the developing world. In those regions, politics and globalization were taking unusual twists and turns of a highly unpredictable nature. Ultimately, The End of History, though a well-meaning offering, just wasn’t in-sync with humanity’s complexity.

It has taken a few decades to understand that liberal democracy itself is hardly as vibrant or dominant as we once believed, and it’s likely that 2016 was the year where we began to seriously doubt our own confidence in the financial and political systems of our present era. In reality, the previously more stable countries around the globe are falling into crisis. Canada is enjoying relative stability, but one shouldn’t presume it’s guaranteed. That will depend on us.

It’s a tough time to be a politician. Voters are looking to their elected leaders to deal effectively with growing inequality, stagnating living standards, unemployment and underemployment, surging immigration, vigilante terrorism, climate change, and the lack of effective social policies. That’s a lot, and we are quickly reaching the stage where we wonder if our leaders can actually deliver on what we expect. It’s a crisis of governance to be sure, but it is impacting democracy itself in unpredictable ways.

Wasn’t globalization and the reformatting of the world economy supposed to benefit those liberal democracies best suited to take advantage of investments and innovation? Instead we are witnessing the shift of power and influence from the developed to the developing world. In Western democracies, the safe path of progress no longer instills a sense of trust. We still have countless economic and political advantages in the West, but the competition from across the globe is now fierce. Nothing is sure any longer, and if any time in recent history taught us that truth it was 2016.

Whether we think of it or not, the inroads of modern technology and the emergence of billions of new low-wage workers into the global economy have placed us in the predicament of having far more capacity than we do demand, and in the process the average Western worker is being squeezed or made redundant altogether. To a significant degree, the pain felt in this grip helped to propel Donald Trump to victory.

The feeling of disconnectedness among citizens is tearing apart our historic sense of order and institutional progress. The advent of social media has meant that nothing is for sure anymore. It has proved largely successful at driving voters into verbally armed camps of ideology as opposed to better equipping them for integrated debate and consensus. What could have been an effective revolution of ideas and innovation has descended instead into a maelstrom of barbs, attacks, and hate speech. No one partaking of social media in these past 12 months could remain ignorant of this trend.

The last year has also felt the rumbles of nation states no longer willing to play ball with the traditional global patterns of getting along. Russia, Syria, Iran, numerous European nations, China, and even Israel in its recent war of words with the U.S., are in the process of expanding their reach in ways that break standard global protocols. It’s not just terrorist organizations that flaunt international norms; now entire nation states are flirting with the practice. 2016 was the Year of the Rogue.

It seems tragic that in the face of such imposing challenges the divisions in Western societies are exacerbated by dysfunction in both the partisanship of politics and the separations within the citizenry. These are times when our attentions must be focused on overcoming our differences by identifying our commonalities.

One thing is for certain: leaders can no longer proceed in their various agendas without the support of citizens. It is no longer enough to engage only during election seasons. Populism has risen so quickly, and with such turbulence, that established political orders around the globe have been served notice – power is no longer the playground of the privileged. If by the end of 2017 elected officials fail to mobilize power and finance for the betterment of average citizens instead of the wealthy or the political parties, then history itself will transform into something no one can fully predict. So far, it is difficult to feel assured.

Years ago political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote of a “third wave” of democracy that would spring up around the world, driven in large part by grassroots populism. Since the 1970s, the number of electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, went from 45 to over 123 of the 192 countries today. Democracy is everywhere, but it’s more like turbulent cauldron than any kind of organized movement among the citizens of the world. Neither political nor financial leaders have yet shown the capacity to collectively shape these movements. 2017 might well be their final chance before the dam breaks, ushering in a different world.

Sleeves Rolled Up

IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS ANY INDICATION, 2016’s end couldn’t come quickly enough. Somehow the last 12 months have left millions with the compelling urge to turn the page and get on with something better.

It’s not difficult to understand why this angst seems so universal. It has been a year of significant challenges and disappointments. Political turbulence, economic stagnation, the frustrations of the middle class, environmental decline — this list could just go on and on with issues that are striking insecurity into the hearts of citizens and leaders alike.

A clue to what was happening occurred partway through 2016 when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks claimed, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” It’s that (at times, toxic) urgency that has added fuel to numerous conflagrations around the globe and prompted people to look back at 2016 as a dark period, despite its numerous bright moments.

Perhaps no other year in recent memory has carried such foreboding undercurrents as what we have just endured. Many wonder whether civilization itself has pivoted towards its own demise in the past 12 months, while others fret that the collective belief in democracy, equality, God, fairness and progress might have been misplaced. The passing of numerous celebrity icons in past months has only added to the sense of gloom.

If there was ever a time for a universal sense of hope to make an appearance, now, on the eve of 2017, would be a good time — or as Alfred Lloyd Tennyson put it, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘it will be happier.’”

Yet if hope is to accomplish its difficult task it will require the hands of the many and not just the manipulations of the few.

“Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.”

Hope is not just an aspiration, but a driving force of nature that takes on the world with a sense of determination, daring to take another chance at getting things right. It’s no mere pious virtue that lures people into its aura in peace and solitude, but a compelling urge to remove those obstacles that keep us from a brighter future. It is the pitting of ourselves against the worst aspects of humanity and believing that we’ll prevail. Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.

We have come to one of those turning points in history that will define our future for the better or the worse. Yet there is one key difference — the rise of populism. Across the world, the voices of common people are railing against the power of those of have enjoyed the privileges of their wealth and excess at the expense of others.

But populism can easily become a force for destruction that permits its individual anger to overpower the need for mutual respect and collective collaboration. The rise of the common person is now a global reality, but it must demonstrate the very willingness to understand and provide for others and the planet that our global leaders have so far failed to bring

It is now up to citizens, perhaps more than it has ever been, and we are making that reality increasingly clear to those that govern us. But we must learn to cooperate with our elected representatives in a fashion that diffuses power in equitable fashion. This past year, while giving rise to such a concept, has so far pitted citizens more against each other than fighting the obstacles that threaten our very survival. This is what we must turn around in 2017.

This year ends with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series proved iconic to an entire generation. Though her role in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One lasts less than a minute, her utterance of the last word in the movie serves to remind us that it’s only after endless sacrifice and a sense of collective purpose that such a word could be uttered with any form of confidence.

“Hope,” she says before the credits roll — a fitting conclusion near the end of a troubling year and prior to another 12 months of opportunity to get things right.

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