The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The Lost Art of Disagreement

Posted on October 9, 2017

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.

Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Posted on September 26, 2017

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

A Unique Commitment With a Powerful Champion

Posted on September 15, 2017

Yesterday’s story by Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles on the possibility of Canada’s peacekeeping future being tied with the demilitarization of child soldiers could represent a clear departure for this country’s foreign agenda.

Two key influencers have come together to move Canada in that direction. The first is the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial forum to be held in Vancouver in November, and the second is the redoubtable General Roméo Dallaire.   The global forum, designed to gain pledges from the participating nations towards peacekeeping, will be interested in Canadian input since this country’s participation on that file has been under review for an extended time. Still, the idea of having a rapid deployment military unit that can move quickly and be trained on preventing the recruitment and mobilization of child soldiers would prove a unique and intriguing contribution to the global commitment to peace.

The international event comes at a pivotal time for Dallaire, the former military general, and senator, who launched the Child Soldier Initiative in 2007 and which is housed at Dalhousie University. In venues around the world, he has struggled to help decision makers come to grips with the growing immoral problem of using youth in combat and especially the increase in the use of girls for such a purpose. His 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, revealed his extensive understanding of the problem and his commitment to working on a solution.

While an MP, I worked with the General as he launched his initiative and watched in real time his increasing sense of urgency over the fate of youth in combat – he became a man possessed and a formidable global voice on the matter. At one point he wrote: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.” That’s a pretty strong commitment, and coming from Dallaire it is a binding promise.

There was a time when the use of kids under the age of sixteen as warriors was frowned upon and rare, but that all changed with the increase of regional conflicts across the globe, especially in Africa. Dallaire told me in my office one day that creating a child to kill was much like moving a product through an assembly line. The molding of the young mind towards hatred and violence is a complex arrangement and breaking down that process is no simple matter.

Should the Canadian government commit to the demobilizing of child soldiers it must understand the recruitment process in troubled regions. To assume that armies sweep through a village and forcibly mobilize kids to kill is something of a misnomer.   In South Sudan, as an example, idle boys with nothing to do gravitate to a military unit encamped in the area, often intrigued with the camaraderie of soldiers, fascinated with weaponry and hopeful of some kind of wage. Without urging, they follow along with the units, offering to cart supplies or undertake physical labour. In most cases, they are denied participation yet they continue to “track” the unit in hopes of joining forces.

“The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

For girls it’s different. Many have lost parents in the fighting or face famine and sickness. The military forces have their own food supplies, doctors, medical provisions and security, so they begin to shadow the soldiers in hopes of survival or protection. After a time they are set to work cleaning and cooking and, almost inevitably, take on something of a concubine status. Some are trained as killing units, while most remain in support roles.

This kind of recruitment wouldn’t transpire if medical and educational services were readily available in the regions. In addition, host governments, even rebel commanders, are conscious of the breaking of international legal protocols through the use of child soldiers. For these reasons, any effort on Canada’s part to launch anything to do with demobilizing child soldiers must be partnered with effective development. To incorporate one without the other can only result in ongoing enlisting. Canada’s development assistance must take this into account, especially for women and girls.

The possibility of Canada providing a peacekeeping component to effectively deal with child soldiers is a project worthy of both our past and future. As Dallaire said about the possibility: “To lead must be your aim … Bring your new-found depth of argument to the political elite of our nations and remind them of their enormous responsibility to protect, to assist, to intervene.” Sounds like an intriguing Canadian venture, one that we must enact with understanding and commitment.

Behind Lincoln’s Back

Posted on September 8, 2017

It has become known as one of the greatest protest movements of the modern era, and one of its most poignant and powerful moments was the great March on Washington by those fighting for civil rights. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., some 250,000 people (70% of whom were black) gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It became an iconic moment for how to mobilize and empower a nonviolent rally.

It could have turned out another way, however. John Lewis, now an American black congressman but on that day in 1963 was only 23 years old, tells of a key moment that ultimately turned the rally into a success.

Lewis was an angry and young black activist who had experienced enough of the status quo. He had been beaten by both white protesters and the police, so he was primed for this day to speak his mind. When asked to be one of the opening speakers prior to MLK he readied his remarks as if from a fire and brimstone sermon. He shared parts of his speech with rally organizers. One paragraph read: “We are now involved in a great social revolution. This nation is still a place cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with various forms of economic, political and social exploitation.” He was referring to young president, John Kennedy, and everyone knew it.

He was asked to join a few others behind the majestic seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. “We’ve come this far. Can we stay together? Can you change some things in your speech?” These questions, asked by the Dean of Black Leadership, A. Philip Randolph, infuriated Lewis and he pushed back. He didn’t trust JFK. Then Martin Luther King Jr. reminded him that Kennedy had asked the rally leaders to attend a meeting in the Oval Office with him following the march. If, as a result of Lewis’s volatile speech rioting erupted, then that meeting wouldn’t happen and the civil rights movement would suffer a major setback.

Congressman John Lewis

“I changed the speech on their advice, and I’m glad I did. How could I say no to them?” Lewis said recently. King had reminded Lewis that they had seen white supporters killed by the KKK and that it was a white president who was offering support. “They have to be given a chance,” King urged.

A few hours later they were in Kennedy’s White House office and working out how to collaborate together to work out effective civil rights legislation. It was a remarkable moment that would have been lost had Lewis not listened to wiser counsel and kept his powder dry. All these years later he acknowledges that change was already happening in society and that King and the others had placed their faith in that progress. Lewis could only see the prejudice and the beatings, however, until prevailed upon to expand his perspective.

Looking back on that important day, Lewis acknowledges that if his legitimate but caustic words had been uttered and violent eruptions occurred as a result, it was likely the civil rights legislation would never have passed the Congress of which he is now a member. He learned from King that activism involved two key components: pressing for change and then learning how to spot it once it has begun to occur. He learned that progress isn’t possible without change, but that change can’t be secured unless progress is acknowledged. That remarkable journey taught him something inestimably valuable, and he noted:

“The dissident stance assumed and cultivated patience. It taught us how to wait. It taught us waiting as patience. Waiting as a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness. It is not a sweet lie but a bitter truth. We must wait for the seeds we have planted to grow.”

Many of those revolutionary leaders have now passed, and the few that remain know that their time is brief. But the lessons they learned in those pivotal years have kept their dreams alive instead of flaming out in defeat and discouragement. Our modern era, so full of viewpoints and angry rhetoric, must learn again never to permit a blast of heat to obliterate the light of progress – just like that day behind Abraham Lincoln’s back.

What’s to Become of Labour Day?

Posted on September 5, 2017

Social agencies throughout the country are encountering people who are recently without work or holding down one or two minimum wage jobs as they seek to make ends meet for their families. It’s an endlessly disillusioning process – one showing no sign of abating. Yet, with yesterday being Labour Day, the subject received little mention. Governments can be forgiven for having grown distracted by terrorism, climate change, the struggles of modern democracy and, yes, Donald Trump.

But this is the new world, the new economy, the new reality of employment. Millions are facing it and, despite training and education, they are witnessing that link between work and wealth disappear in real-time and with real fallout. We see what happens when democracy stumbles along through cycles of low voter turnout and the dysfunction that inevitably follows. Suddenly power migrates upward, with citizens cut off from it in ever-increasing ways. Well, it’s now playing out like that with employment. Wealthy owners and shareholders move farther off into the world of the elite and workers helplessly watch them disappear over the horizon in this endlessly globalized world. Unless dealt with, this de-linking will result in the ultimate separation between democracy and wealth.

As Sarah Kessler of Reuters reminded us this past summer, this is actually a discussion that’s been on the agenda for some 500 years. Helpfully, she provided some examples.

 

  • Late-16th century – Queen Elizabeth I denied patent to the inventor of the newly automated sewing machine, fearing it would take away jobs.
  • 1860 – shovellers who handled grain in US ports refused to work with employers who used automated grain elevators.
  • 1930 – John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment” to describe people losing jobs to mechanization. Ironically, he wondered about expanded leisure time, including 15-hour work-weeks.
  • 1950 – the Ford motor company replaced the original engine assembly line with an automated control that performed more than 500 operations, requiring fewer workers.
  • 1995 – Jeremy Rifkin authored the bestselling book The End of Work.
  • 2007 – with the newly arrived millennium, Newsweek magazine placed the future of work on its cover, with Time magazine doing the same two years later. Both articles held out the hope that, “remote work, teleconferencing, and collaboration software” would revolutionize work for the betterment of all.
  • 2013 – researchers at Oxford publish a study on “the future of employment” that predicts almost half of U.S. occupations were at high risk of being automated.

 

This topic has been generating heat and discussion for some time. But it seems more acutely threatening now – a reality noted by author Andrew McAffee: “There’s the obvious evidence, and then the serious rigorous research about the hollowing out of the middle class, the polarization of the economy, the declines in entrepreneurship and mobility. We weren’t as aware of those things three and a half years ago as we are today.”

So, what’s the plan? We’ve heard that federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats are studying the impacts of this rapidly evolving situation, but it remains unclear how all this is being addressed. Two narratives are unfolding at the same time and, depending on which one you are part of, things can get confusing. We are repeatedly told that our economy is, overall, healthy and that prospects are good. On the other hand there are hundreds of thousands of stories emerging from the social agencies mentioned earlier that reveal just how many Canadians are trapped in unemployment or underemployment, between workers without jobs and jobs without workers.

“Wealth without work,” noted Gandhi is one of the world’s seven deadliest social sins. It also constitutes a failure of politics and economics. We’re in a bind and it’s becoming troublingly clear that the vital connection between work and meaning is imploding. Having a job used to mean holding status in a community. One provided for her or his family. Skills were important and applying them with diligence was highly regarded.

Our political parties, and the great structure of bureaucracy around them, know all this to be true, but we keep being told that everything is proceeding as planned. Fair enough, but we’ve been hearing that for 500 years. The real question is how can they get all this new wealth and fragile employment into some kind of coherent policy. Unless that transpires, Labour Day will become more of a historical event than a present cause for celebration.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

 

 

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