The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: The New Internationalism

Payette Speech Should Spark Serious Reflection

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

Her speech was bound to raise the ire of many, but when Governor General Julie Payette spoke to the respected Canadian Science Policy Centre convention two weeks ago it’s likely she was unaware of the response it would generate. Yet, she’s been dealing with it ever since.

Before proceeding further, I should declare that I had penned a National Newswatch article following her appointment that praised Payette’s selection, revelled in her life of remarkable accomplishments, and concluded that she was, indeed, a woman of her times. I should also state that I’m a person of religious faith who rejoices in her scientific advancements. Yet, after viewing her speech a number of times, I grew to understand how she got into some hot water.

It was likely the seemingly mocking tone in her words that set some off, as when she noted, “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” I don’t suppose her eye roll helped matters.

Almost immediately the Internet and traditional media sources were fired up with opinions, pro and con, that soon enough descended to personal attacks regarding this remarkable woman. Regardless of which side of this issue people land on, there are some things that should prompt serious reflection. Let’s consider some of the context of the Canada Payette represents.

According to a 2015 Angus Reid poll, two-thirds of Canadians believe in God, with some 53% maintaining that, “God is active in the world.” To describe these millions as deluded and ignorant is perhaps one of the most un-Canadian things we can do. And what of the refugees and immigrants who have come to this land in recent times, the majority of whom cherish a deep and abiding faith that saw them through some of the most horrendous events we can imagine? First Nations spirituality remains one of the most powerful and respected forces in Canada – a set of beliefs that has assisted them in enduring the isolation they have known for centuries. Are we implying that they just don’t get it? Because if we are, I’m not sure our current variety of secular liberalism has turned us into those “kind” and “tolerant” Canadians the world respects. All this isn’t taking into account the many scientists, health professionals and researchers who see their personal religious faith as one of the “drivers” for their desire to better humanity.

Yes, various religions have committed immoral acts, but then again, some of the most brutal experiments on humans, in war and peace, have been committed in the name of science. Humanity is a complex reality and oversimplifications benefit neither religion, science or democracy.

A few days after Payette’s speech, I spoke at a multi-cultural event in London where a number of questions were raised concerning her words. Some present had been in this country for less than two years and were left to wonder if denying religion was an official Canadian policy since it came from an esteemed Canadian figure. The concerns were real enough since many had escaped their countries of origin, in part because of persecution for their kind of religious faith. They perceived Canada as a nation with open arms and hearts capable of accepting their sentiments and appreciating the richness newcomers brought to this nation. One woman from Pakistan asked if Payette’s words meant that things have changed.

Of course they haven’t. And we can be certain that our Governor General never meant anything of the kind and is likely devastated that her words carried weight she didn’t comprehend. This is her first month in office and she will become an effective voice for all Canadians and not just for those she agrees with. We see what happens when someone is elected to political office and then spends their tenure only rewarding those who supported them as opposed to, perhaps, the majority who didn’t. It’s cheap politics and a deep slight to inclusive democracy. Payette understands this and just happened to have a rocky beginning.

The real spotlight should be on all of us. Do we truly accept those who recently arrived in Canada or those who inhabited the land before we even got here? If so, then we have to come to see that their religious and spiritual persuasions are every bit as vital as our foundation of science. Canada is big enough for both, and it’s time we started living that truth as well.

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.

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.

Wasted.

It could be said that his notoriety now outweighs his vast expertise, but that would be something of a misnomer. Anthony Bourdain graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and soon enough became a noted executive chef in some of the world’s greatest kitchens. He broke into television as the host of the Food Network’s A Cooks Tour, then did a stint on the Travel Channel, before switching to CNN in 2013 to host Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. He’s also the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books.

News of his new documentary leaked out a short while ago. Titled, WASTED: The Story of Food Waste!, his project is creating keen attention.

As well it should. A recent report in Foodtank reminds us the one-third of food produced globally for human consumption is never eaten – a total of 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization says that we could just recover one-quarter of that food it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people. And Canada? According to the independent think tank Value Chain Management Centre, Canadians toss out $27 billion worth of good food. Half of that total comes from households.

We’ve known this for years but progress against such waste has been glacial. That’s why the intervention of Bourdain takes on special importance. His show is viewed by millions and his educational skills are impressive. And he’s concerned about the American waste problem. He grew incensed when he learned that America spend $218 billion (USD) in growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten. It didn’t help when he learned that wasted food generates climate change pollution that equals 37 million cars per year.

Thus, his documentary. As he put it in his press release regarding, WASTED: The Story of Food Waste:

“This is an important and informative film and a project I’m proud to be part of. Chefs have been at the cutting edge of efforts to contend responsibly with the problem of food waste, perhaps because they, more than others, are painfully aware of the egregious volume of perfectly usable, nutritious food that could otherwise feed people in need, being thrown out in our restaurants.”

The film doesn’t expose the extent of the problem. Bourdain looks around the world for locations that are coming up with solutions. It makes sense, for, as Bourdain himself put it, he’s not just into exposing the problem but changing people’s mindset about how they handle every aspect of their procurement, preparing and disposal of food.

Bourdain is a fighter by nature and practice, having received a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. He most recently won gold one such event in New York in 2016. This time, his struggle isn’t against one opponent but an entire generation of affluent consumers who need to start contemplating what such waste says about their choices.

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.”

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