The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

2018’s Greatest Danger to Democracy

Posted on January 4, 2018

Ugh. We get into the same bind every year. New Years is a time of resolutions and some of them inevitably deal with our hopes for a better society, cleaner environment, a functional equality between the genders, and our desire for meaningful work, to name just a few. And then we look back a few months later and realize we didn’t make it. Somehow the rigors of life got between us and our aspirations. If we’re not careful, 2018 could end up looking a lot like last year.

For democracy to truly work, it will take more than just wishing it to be so – we must become essential parts to its overall performance. But that’s just the problem: society seems to go on and on, regardless of whether we contribute or not. This is perception, not reality, but it does lull us into thinking that one individual can’t make a difference anyway. It’s the rich, the powerful, the elites, the politicians, the corporate barons that get to run the world, right?

Ironically, democracy evolved as a mechanism for limiting such forces, not empowering or enriching them.   But in recent years, despite the fact that we are proud of our democratic traditions, a global economic agenda has left us more as bystanders, as frenetic consumers, than joint shareholders of a political system designed to benefit all citizens.

It’s true that the practicing of democracy has always been an imperfect exercise, yet there was the sense that, despite our foibles, things were getting better, our greatest problems were solvable, and those few who controlled most resources had found an ardent foe in democracy itself.  There are now few who believe this to be the case. Democracy is floundering and the rest of us along with it.

We once believed in the rock-solid nature of democracy, regardless of what transpired between the political parties, but as I noted in an earlier post, living within a democracy doesn’t mean it will survive. For that to happen we must live it, manifest democracy – live out our aspirations and not just assent to them.

The problem we presently face is that so many remain unmoved by it all, falling into the state that Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran worried about: “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.” It’s that last bit we need to be wary of, lest in our negligence we find ourselves collectively outside of our ability to change our fate.

To matter, we must engage, and in serious fashion, because it’s our own collective future we’re talking about.

Let’s not permit ourselves to become a one-issue people. Such personalities can become angrier over time as the world doesn’t revolve around their sole concern. The great leaders, the most expansive citizens, always knew the value of linking many important truths into an effective plan for action. Let’s be more like travellers when it comes to politics, not merely tourists. Issues matter: let’s learn them and expand our understanding of place. And let’s avoid extremes. They leave us on the edge of community, not at its core where most citizens dwell.

What happens if we remain aloof? Look at various regions of the globe that recently cast off their democratic possibilities and are now ruled by the iron fist of bigotry, hatred, even prejudice. This is what awaits us if democracy fails, or as Plato put it: “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” This will inevitably transpire unless we stand collectively for our shared democratic estate.

The Ripping of Our Social Fabric

Posted on December 30, 2017

Another year is ending, and in some respects we are more divided as Londoners than ever – not a popular sentiment, I know, but one with which we must come to terms. Somewhere in the last few years, the possibilities we once envisioned for social media to help guide us into a more collaborative future have floundered. Friendships have been lost, enemies gained, and a brighter future dimmed. It has exacerbated an already difficult generational divide in London and threatens to derail our potential.

We’re not alone in this challenge, as communities around the world wrestle with a remarkable resource that has somehow turned citizens against one another.

News was made recently when former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out concerning the harm the social network was doing globally to civil society. In a moment of contrition he confessed to feeling “tremendous guilt” about creating tools that, “are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He concluded with a terse observation: “No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, untruth.”

Sir Tim Burners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide web, concurred with Palihapitiya’s insight. He reserved his major criticism for the way social media companies raise insane revenues by getting users to focus on themselves to the exclusion of the great challenges and potential that confront them. “This is not democracy,” he said in exasperation.

As the Washington Post noted, we are becoming “addicted to outrage,” and often the weapon of choice for that anger has been Twitter. The social media giant frequently resembles more a venue for playground squabbles than an online sharing and collaboration tool. A generation of trolls and haters has been so tolerated on the digital frontier by Twitter that sincere efforts to use the platform for effective civil discourse are frequently undone. Unsure how to contend with such all-consuming competitors, traditional media is sometimes lulled into this more sinister aspect of the “Twitterverse” in a fashion that divides communities even further.

This is how democracies perish – not by outside forces, but by the tearing apart of citizens and ideas as people and organizations turn incessantly inward and, all too often, on themselves. Possible solutions for what ails us are frequently shot down before they can catch on with a wider audience. The danger housed within social media prompts an increasing number of the citizenry to “block” or “unfriend” when the goal of such tools was supposed to be the exact opposite.

The year 2017 will be remembered by many Londoners as the year they were harassed, belittled and even stalked online – a stark reality that has forced them to disengage altogether. They have grown tired of hyper-partisan politics, fake news, the drip, drip, drip of constantly negative posts. And they have pulled away, bruised, battered, and perhaps worst of all, deeply disillusioned about democracy itself.

And yet there is a growing awareness that local citizens are becoming tired of the self-serving nature of social media platforms and are seeking to find productive means of collaboration, friendliness and cause-oriented pursuits. But to be successful they must revisit the potential of social media and reclaim it from those who only seek to destroy community through its tools. Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms will remain as some of the best ways we can reach out to each other, plan, seek to understand, and envision a new future together.

Key to all of it will be the recapture of that one great asset of community function: dialogue. Not the kind that yells at one another, has its mind fully made up before even engaging, or uses social media to undermine political opponents in ways that break apart our comity (an inviting temptation as election season nears).

Let’s not fool ourselves: much of the crosstalk going on in London at present doesn’t constitute dialogue, nor does it create common ground. As power has more and more been entrusted to the citizenry, we haven’t yet learned the skills of listening closely and respecting one another. In so many instances we have lacked the ability to stay in the room long enough to forge a way forward.

What if we used 2018 to work towards getting this aspect of our shared life right? Much of our angst would dissolve, our distrust overcome, and we could be engaged in a new sense of purpose. We could focus on our best course of collective action.

It’s time we used the coming twelve months to reclaim social media for its intended purpose of bringing us together and to openly defend one another against the disquieting work of the trolls. What a year that would be, and it’s within our reach should we act responsibly for the sake of our future.


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

Heather Stewart, on the ground in South Sudan

Heather Stewart – A Humanitarian Hero’s Last Flight

Posted on December 28, 2017

News of her death brought sorrow flowing through our home. Heather Stewart, a frontier pilot in a field dominated almost exclusively by male counterparts, lived one of those remarkable lives that only a place like Africa could produce. It was repeatedly like something from the movies. In a land so vast, barren and dangerous, she journeyed, lingered, and faced mortality head-on for the sake of the seemingly hopeless southern Sudanese situation and the non-governmental agencies seeking to help. Jane and I were on many of those journeys and returned from that remarkable land with tales of the valiant woman’s exploits.

She was nicknamed “All Weather Heather” for her willingness to lift off when other pilots remained sensibly and safely on the ground. But in those hours when she flew and others didn’t, remarkable acts of human ingenuity and bravery were accomplished and recognized only by those fortunate enough to be on those flights with Heather. On numerous occasions, she flew us into regions where marauding Government of Sudan militias and army units were seeking to destroy southern Sudanese villages and any humanitarians along with them. She knew the odds, and rather than weigh them she more often confronted them on behalf of the sheer scale of human need in those she was attempting to reach.

Jane and I recounted many stories of our adventures with the redoubtable Heather, including her treating us to lunch in Nairobi on the occasion of our successfully getting our adopted daughter Abuk out of Sudan and into Kenya. But the one that remained with us ended up saving a life that would never have survived if Heather hadn’t made a challenging decision.

We were on her Caravan airplane ready to leave and find a group of slaves we were attempting to reach in another region when a number of men came to the plane carrying a young man who had been shot a number of times during a raid. He was barely conscious, had lost copious amounts of blood, and only had a few hours to live in an area where no medical assistance was available.

“I’ll fly him to Lokichoggio (Loki, as it was affectionately named) and the Red Cross hospital there,” Heather said.  Loki was on the Kenyan border and possessed an airstrip used by the UN for food drops and also the largest field hospital in the world. “But I need someone to come with me while I fly the plane,” Heather urged. Jane and I volunteered for the task and in the end, it was decided that the young man’s mother should come with us.

Words will never describe what was endured on that flight. Blood continued to run down the floor of the craft as we sought to administer morphine and constantly check his vital signs. We felt so helpless. At one point he opened his eyes and his mother wept at the sight. He had a huge wound under his arm and the blood was escaping rapidly. “There’s duct tape in the rear compartment,” Heather yelled from the front, and we wrapped the wound in it, watching as the bleeding somehow stopped.

Five hours later we arrived in Loki, where the boy and his mother were whisked off to the hospital from the airstrip (a year later we happened upon him and he had recovered, though with the loss of the use of one arm). Heather invited us to the hospitality camp she ran there, just off the single airstrip, treating us to a sumptuous dinner and her best room. Even there, exhausted from the flight, she consistently looked out for others.

Heather Stewart spent years flying people like us into some of the riskiest situations and on many of those occasions chose to park her plane with us for the night in case something serious were to occur. She slept on the ground with us, endured the heat, the food, the massive scope of human suffering, and the shared grief at the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands. She helped us fight slavery, assisted others in flying in emergency supplies and workers, and constantly used her Loki camp to assuage the pains, heal the wounds, and recover the spirits.

“There are no heroes in life,” one of the Game of Thrones characters said, “only monsters win.” Thanks to Heather Stewart many learned what a fabrication that kind of sentiment was. In a world where only an airplane could splice together humanity’s hopes and tragic need in a timely fashion, this woman eventually outlasted the monsters, when the great civil war ended a few years later.   If it’s true that great heroes require great sorrows and tragedy, Heather Stewart confronted her share and survived to tell marvelous tales of the greatness of the human spirit in a dark age.

Most of her heroism will never be known unless all of those hundreds of people who flew with her in a darkness sprinkled with marvelous pinpricks of wonderful human endeavour gathered together and unfolded the tales. But that will never happen because the world came to Sudan in those years and then disappeared.

But Heather remained, infused with the need to ensure that humanity triumphed over inhumanity. That was her only real power. She became a hero of her times, not because of wealth, power or might, but because she chose the path of human service that ennobles the soul and gives humanity another chance. Thank you, Heather, for that hope.


Note:  A special thanks to Canada’s former ambassador to South Sudan, Nicholas Coghlan, for his suggestion of the title and who both knew and appreciated Heather.

For 2018, Boring is Better

Posted on December 26, 2017

Journalists can be forgiven for growing jaded over time. Covering politics can prove to be a deep struggle of getting facts from those seeking to shelter them. More often than not journalists know they are being played. “The media are less a window on reality, than a stage on which officials perform self-scripted, self-serving functions,” wrote Thomas Sowell, and there’s a strong element of truth in it.

Given what’s going on in places like America, Venezuela, Russia, Britain, Spain and China, Canadian news at times can seem outright boring. Yet it says something about this country – our politics, our citizenry, our economy, our institutions.

Closing out 2017, we as Canadians understand that our pliability is a blessing. There are numerous challenges existing at a dysfunctional level in our society and, left unaddressed, could fester into open wounds that appear with regularity across the globe. For all our divisions, our bickering, our politics, our language, our origins, our discontent – our weather – we have remained together despite all those forces pulling troubled nations to the extremes.

Just a cursory Google search reminds us that we continue to place high in numerous rankings of “best country” in the world – a position we have maintained for a remarkable amount of time. Others have ducked in and out of such lists, but Canada is always in the running. Anyone who travels extensively knows this to be true. We are often respected globally for those things we are not: war-like, relentlessly angry, overtly partisan, severely nationalistic, hotbeds of hatred. And, yes, we confess to tolerating a subtle racism, an abiding inequality of gender, historic injustices towards indigenous people, and far too much poverty, but none of these challenges have risen to the level where our country will be torn apart by their presence. There is great work to be done in these fields, but the reality is that we know it and are working slowly to correct our historic unfairness.

Our number one strength? Opinions are divided at home, but to the rest of the world the answer is almost universal – somehow we are unified by our diversity. Our lack of crisis culture is a marvel when seen through a global lens. The reality that our great differences can abide among us over decades without pulling us into regional, cultural or racial enclaves seems almost impossible for conflicted societies around the world to envision.

It remains hard to concede to this somewhat rosy picture for those among us struggling to achieve the hope that Canada offers yet still fails to achieve. It is easy for our country to preen itself when considering global rankings, but great nations compare themselves not to other countries, but to their own ideals. Canadians reflect these ideals in their response to polls, registering solid concurrence when it comes to ending child poverty, resolving historic disputes with our indigenous people, and ultimately the desire for effective climate change action.

But we aren’t there yet, and, in some cases, not even close. Still, we live in a land where such things remain possible when a people and their political representatives place their resources behind the values they supposedly profess and not just their aspirations. Our ability to come together, though fraught with historic hurdles, remains Canada’s greatest asset and a genial commodity to a troubled world. The essence of a good people, journalist Richard Bernstein would write, “is to represent something beyond themselves, to light up the world, to glow with the torch of civilization itself.” This we are already undertaking, in ways that remain remarkably enduring and impressive. Our task before us in 2018 is to press for even greater social justice, equality, and a thankful people worthy of their land – to become even better versions of ourselves for the sake of our heritage and our influence in a disjointed world.

Rudolph – More Than Just a Jingle

Posted on December 23, 2017

A man named Robert L. May, depressed and broken-hearted, stared out his drafty apartment window into the chilling December night.  His 4-year-old daughter Barbara sat on his lap quietly sobbing.  Bob’s wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer.   Little Barbara couldn’t understand why her mommy could never come home. Barbara looked up into her dad’s eyes and asked, “Why isn’t Mommy just like everybody else’s Mommy?” Bob’s jaw tightened and his eyes welled with tears.  Her question brought waves of grief, but also of anger. It had been the story of Bob’s life.

Life always had to be different for Bob.  When he was a kid, Bob was often bullied by other boys.  He was too little at the time to compete in sports. He was often called names he’d rather not remember.  From childhood, Bob was different and never seemed to fit in.

After completing college, he had married his loving wife Evelyn and was grateful to get a job as a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward Department Store, in Chicago, during the Great Depression. Then he was blessed with his little girl. But it was all short-lived. Evelyn’s bout with cancer stripped them of all their savings and now Bob and his daughter were forced to live in a two-room apartment in the poorer area of Chicago.  Evelyn died just days before Christmas in 1938.

Bob struggled to give hope to his child, for whom he couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas gift.  So he determined a make one – a storybook!  Bob had created an animal character in his own mind and told the animal’s story to little Barbara to give her comfort and hope.  Again and again, Bob told the story, embellishing it more with each telling.

Who was the character? What was the story all about?

The story Bob May created was his own autobiography in fable form. The character he created was a misfit outcast like he was.  The name of the character?  A little reindeer named Rudolph, with a big shiny nose.  He had considered the names, Reginald, Romeo or Rollo before landing on Rudolph.

He finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl on Christmas Day.  But the story doesn’t end there.

The general manager of Montgomery Ward caught wind of the little storybook and offered Bob May a nominal fee to purchase the rights to print the book. They went on to print, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and distribute it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores.  By 1946, the store had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph.  That same year, a major publisher wanted to purchase the rights from the store to print an updated version of the book.

In an unprecedented gesture of kindness, the CEO of Montgomery Ward returned all rights back to Bob May.  The book became a best seller.

Many toy and marketing deals followed and Bob May, now remarried with a growing family, became wealthy from the story he created to comfort his grieving daughter.

But the story doesn’t end there either.   Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a struggling artist at the time, made a song adaptation for Rudolph.  Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry.   “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas.”

The gift of love that Bob May created for his daughter so long ago kept on returning back to bless him again and again. And Bob May learned the lesson, just like Rudolph, that endurance in times of struggle is one of the key ingredients of leadership – as is the willingness to be different.

Merry Christmas everyone.



A special thanks to my friend Ron Posno for sending this account along this Christmas.

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