The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: change

Behind Lincoln’s Back

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.

Someone Buy Twitter – Please

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THE RUMOURS HAVE BEEN CIRCULATING FOR WEEKS, all driven by one pressing question: who will buy Twitter? For a time, some were certain the Disney Corporation was making a bid. More serious seemed to be the talks with Salesforce. Then someone mentioned Google, but that seemed to be more wishful thinking that anything of substance. Ultimately, it appears that they all fell through, or weren’t serious offers anyway.

Intriguing in all of this is that the millions of Twitter users want it to survive – just not in its present shape. The company is currently valued at $20 billion (U.S.), but its user growth has flatlined and Twitter itself is talking about its willingness to sell. Sales have been off and some of its recent efforts at rebranding itself have proved lackluster at best. CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been able to reverse the company’s fortunes after a year of dedicated effort.

Underlying all of this has been the disenchantment with Twitter’s abuse policy. When the company launched, Dorsey believed that his policy of little to no censorship would create a vast open space of dialogue with a 140-character limit that would self-discipline itself and lead to a new way of civic engagement. It’s now apparent that his outlook was naïve – the weeds overgrew the garden. Abuse has run rampant. Stalkers and trolls have raged unfiltered and unguarded. Women have been shamelessly attacked and society contains more shadows than perhaps Dorsey or the rest of us figured.

And yet for those of us still using Twitter, there remains something of the innovative in it. It’s at its best when users openly, and respectfully, debate, cajole, inform, and perhaps even persuade. Yet our disenchantment over the last few years came with the realization that the worst of human nature was slowly creeping up and choking our more noble aspirations. When Dorsey refused to censor the abuse, users just started opting out of discussions because of the inevitable attacks from people only out to muckrake and never refine. Sadly, Twitter didn’t have our backs when the going got rough.

Technology correspondent Nick Bilson was asked what he thought about this last week and his insights more or less nailed it:

“I truly do believe that one of the reasons the company’s future is so uncertain is because Twitter is too nasty, or in some instances, too dangerous … I think if the company banned everyone who was mean on the platform, their numbers would vanish, the stock would fall even more, there’d be cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! I mean this sincerely, but it’s really sad what happened to the service. I barely ever use it anymore, and precisely because—to quote Louis C.K. when he quit Twitter —it just doesn’t make me feel good.”

Ultimately, for the democratic experiment, this is tragic. When Bilson is forced to conclude that, “I think, at the end of the day, that the grand experiment of everyone in the world having the opportunity to converse in the same chat room didn’t work out so well,” there’s something in his words that we can all identify with – the worst of us ruined the opportunity for the rest of us.

Do we want Twitter gone because of its idealistic view of human interaction? Hardly. But it would be good to see it improved. And since the present leadership remains willing provide cover for the illegitimate attackers, it’s time for something new and different that can still build on the strengths Twitter continues to maintains and develop. For that to happen there must be the selling of the company to new visionaries who understand intrinsically that you can’t successfully sell a social app that isn’t social.

Twitter was an experiment on how we would be together, and it hasn’t ended up pretty. It’s not just the company that failed; we too failed to have one another’s backs and opted for a kind of remote involvement instead. Twitter users have looked in the mirror and, for many of them, they haven’t liked what they have seen. But it is too useful a resource of citizen-to-citizen democracy to be tossed aside because of its willingness to harbour abuse. We can only hope that some civically responsible company will buy it and turn it to the better angels of our collective nature.

Ready to Go

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AFTER SPEAKING AT A NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES and colleges in these past three months I’m getting a clear sense of an uptake of interest in civic responsibility. Often the subject emerged in classes that, on the surface at least, seemed to have little to do with citizenship and engagement. When I talked to students following the sessions, I would ask them directly if they felt their respective educational institution offered enough instruction on the subject and the answer was most often in the negative.

Another thing was repeatedly affirmed: all those commentators who lamented that the Millennial Generation, and those even younger, were retreating into their own private worlds were themselves living in some other universe. Mountains of research has emerged recently showing that younger generations are in fact engaged, ready for change, and are more than willing to lead whatever it takes to bring about a fairer society.

It should be stressed that they have a specific kind of civics in mind and it doesn’t centre on the traditional ideas of voting or legal status, but primarily action, responsibility, even accountability of the individual to the greater good. They desire to volunteer, protest, become politically active, and promote advocacy. In other words, they’re set to go.

Increasingly these younger Canadians move easily through various dimensions that relate to climate change, work, relationships, charitable and social justice work, socializing, connecting through social media, and taking citizenship into new dimensions.

These are different times, occasions where the world is calling out for a new breed of citizens who seek to capture more than compartmentalize their lives. And just in time. Democracy was growing weary of the stale and divisive offerings of the political class. Under assault from an elite capitalist class endeavouring to find a way around the globe’s greatest problems, democracy was growing poorer by the year and less able to respond to the dangers of climate change or growing financial inequity. It required a new generation of citizens ready to engage across the board in order to alter the financial, social, environmental, political, and global direction of a troubled world and it found that answer in the Millennials.

In reaching the stage where politics had become a zero-sum game of diminishing returns, a new generation of Canadians has been opting to move the goal posts of expectations by an engaged activism. And in a time when the private sector continued to accrue billions while tolerating unemployment, environmental desecration, inequality, and expanding poverty, these same Canadians began operating in a shared economy that pulled all things together in a quest for a fairer humanity.

For too long we have been presented with two collective conditions: an impotent political state and a profiteering free market. But now a new generation of citizen activists is reminding us that citizenship matters and to make it effective it must enhance a new state to balance the other two: civil society. In such a world civic activism matters more than power or money.

Civil society is breaking out of the vice that had historically impinged it between politics and the free market. Leading that revolution are younger citizens who demand closer attention to civics and to the role of the citizen in the remaking of society. Or as John Dewey more effectively stated:

“Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself … It is a name for a life of free and enriching communion.”

The Future Is No Longer A Gift

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky." The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

Note:  This post is also available to view on National Newswatch here.

BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED ON A GENERATIONAL SEA CHANGE in politics and government. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is riding its crest. The American president’s agenda eventually came up against an angry partisan opposition, remaining somewhat unfulfilled. The new Canadian prime minister’s policies have yet to sail through choppy waters.

When the two leaders summited in Washington D.C. last week, there was the unmistakable sense that something new was brewing and that the brief moment in the sun between Obama’s retirement and Trudeau’s arrival was a kind of passing of the torch. But behind each of these men emerged a new social and political force that will make our tomorrow, for better or worse, unlike our present age of democratic underperformance.

For the first time, the abiding and somewhat lackluster political imagination of the Baby Boomers is formidably matched by the Millennial generation – those born from the mid-1980s onwards. We should have noted by now that the key trait of this new political reality is decidedly progressive. Like Trudeau and Obama they view the public estate through a centre to centre-left lens. How else can we explain the massive success of Bernie Sanders with young voters in the American primaries, or Trudeau’s enlistment of over two million new or re-engaged voters in the past federal election? Things are not only changing in both countries, but are transformational in their effect.

Naturally there are many of the younger generation that ascribe to the conservative agenda, but they are the exception, not the rule. Everything else among the Millennials is about a social and economic shifting of gears – the mobilization of the public spirit.

This new force demands transparency over backroom deals, authenticity over authority, social inclusion over historic stereotypes and practices. And unlike their predecessors, who systematically tolerated, even promoted, the shrinking and paucity of the public estate, the Millennials envision a strategic place for government in their collective future. In their own way they are angry, frustrated that two nations that produce more wealth than at any other time in their history would permit so much of it to be frittered away in the pursuit and practice of a narrowing capitalism.

What else should we expect? They face stiffer unemployment than their predecessors, are saddled with unacceptably high student loans, and have watched their wages either stagnate or shrink. They largely played by the rules, went to university or colleges in record numbers in order to secure well-paying jobs to secure their future – the same pattern their parents had employed and enjoyed. Except it didn’t work out for them, or for their respective countries.

And so they are playing the hand they have been dealt with, pressing for environmental renewal, for capitalism with a heart, for a politics that actually includes constituents, and governments that reflect their diverse communities. They shake their heads at a political architecture that still can’t work out wage parity between men and women. They reflect in wonder how countries so resourced and rich can tolerate yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. And they double-down in anger over a political class that has stood by and watched as dignity has been stripped out of hard work.

This new political force has now arrived – revolutionaries, not reactionaries. They want meaning and inclusiveness and they expect their politics and governments to fight for both. They aren’t so much a volatile force as a moral one, and they have the scars to prove it. They are no longer the future we frequently patronize, but the living, breathing present we must now accommodate.

Only months prior to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a remarkable observation while addressing a crowd, one that perfectly challenged his generation: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Fewer observations capture what’s going on right now in politics. Gone are the days when by simply by following a time-honoured agenda that the wealth and individual choices of the future would simply unfold for us. We are living in an era where we must fight back to reclaim the public space, where we get out to vote to change politics itself, and where we link money with meaning again. This is the era which gave us Obama and which propels Justin Trudeau. The recent meetings of the leaders in Washington weren’t so much about the affability of their relationship as this new reality of sacrifice in politics that put them in their lofty positions in the first place. Far from just electing change, this new generation wants to jointly build it.

The Shelter of Each Other

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THIS CONUNDRUM OF HOMELESSNESS IN CANADA has become an exquisitely painful exercise. Over a number of decades we watched from a distance as it first emerged in our larger cities, then became something of an embarrassment to civic, provincial, and federal leaders. It is a part of the Canadian landscape that we understand doesn’t match our worldwide appeal or our domestic ideals.

At crucial moments during that journey (an excruciating trek for those who are actually homeless) the subtle compromise was reached that it was a problem that needed to be managed as opposed to solved – a subtle admission that the distance between our compassionate ideals and our desire for an affluent life was unbridgeable.

For those living without a secure place for shelter the disillusionment has grown from sad to historic. Almost three decades of promises from all sorts of special commissions, anti-poverty plans, and budget reallocations only resulted in a sense of hopelessness as such plans fell away into failure. Author Craig Stone poignantly expressed the irony in his The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness: “I want to avoid people because there’s only one thing worse than being homeless, and that’s people who are not, knowing that you are.”

But maybe things are changing. The understanding that the decision to manage homelessness through the use of transitional housing or shelter only resulted in a growing problem is growing in local communities. And a sense of collective failure has grown evident in the knowledge that homeless people themselves are required to jump through endless hoops, checks, program requirements, and interviews.

In London, Ontario, along with many other communities across the world, there is emerging the understanding that leaving people homeless and isolated has merely left them hopeless and insecure. In many of these communities it is now common practice to not only collaborate to find secure housing, but to also provide wraparound services that can be somewhat tailored to the needs and challenges of the person.

It all really comes down to relationships – those between the homeless themselves and those seeking to assist. And it’s a mobile relationship, traveling with the person so as the work through their many challenges on the way to secure and safe housing – an absolutely essential ingredient for those struggling under mental illness and addictions.

It’s vital in all this to understand that such action moves from managing homelessness to actually providing housing – secure environments where individuals, perhaps even with their families, can begin the ongoing process of rebuilding their lives, one step at a time. Peer reviewed studies in the United States have revealed that when the right supports are put in place, nine out of ten clients eventually don’t return to their previous homeless state. This isn’t mere experimentation, but a proven model for sincere change that is more affordable than what presently exists.

But it’s more than that. It’s about entire communities taking back their future in the desire of including every citizen on the way. Many sincere advocates press for at least getting people off the streets and into temporary shelters in the hopes of ending homelessness. It is a process that doesn’t provide a home, but also leaves the individuals without needed supports.

The proper place for those struggling on our streets is not in shelters but in the community by means of secure and supportive housing. It’s this kind of community welcome that can help a homeless individual know that we understand that they require something more than mere walls and a roof. They need a community that enfolds them into its midst by means of integrated programs that care for the entire person. It is time to begin living out the old Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other than the people live.”

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