The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizenship

The Character to Overcome


A lot has been said, written, sung, painted and even preached on the subjects of poverty, mental illness,
addictions and homelessness in London in these past few years. Over time our brains have been hijacked into placing each of these challenges into their own separate categories, when the reality is that thousands of our citizens in this city frequently move through them on a continual basis. Many remain mired in such conditions because not enough supports are there to help move them along, while others have been fortunate enough to acquire proper assistance to begin the process of building their lives.

Like Melissa Sheehan, for example. At thirty years of age, she has endured more of her share of careening disappointments and setbacks and yet has established a life where she can reach out past her daily trials.

Sheehan’s journey into self-reliance began when she left a difficult home situation at sixteen. She ran the gamut of staying with friends, to community shelters and then geared-to-income housing. She had endured events of physical and sexual abuse and lost friends to suicide and other tragedies equated with poverty and isolation.

Finally meeting with this remarkable woman at a local coffee shop, traits of strength and endurance were obvious, as were moments of vulnerability and transparency. “I have real trust issues,” she says openly, “and I deal with self-esteem and self-image issues everyday.” My daughter Abuk and I listen as she tells of enduring PTSD, depression, and periods of deep mental illness.

It’s a sad tale, at times deeply emotional. But soon enough emerges a sense of hope and humanitarianism that she says helps her get up in the morning and head out for the day. Despite a saga of deep pain and disappointment, there abides a sense of purpose, a need for community that somehow overcomes all the pain she must live with. She shares of her personal journey, “as my way of educating people about what poverty, homelessness and mental health issues exist and what the individuals living with those issues need most.” An air of conviction frames these words, filling them with a kind of urgency.

Because of her struggles, steady employment has been difficult for Sheehan to maintain. But things are improving. In November 2016, she acquired her Grade 12 equivalency through the help of Fanshawe College. She is, at present, exploring options for moving forward in her education experience.

For all she has endured in three decades, Melissa could be forgiven for speaking out against the systems of support that failed her. Yet she refrains from grousing excessively about such systems. “I want to work and support those trying to end poverty and homelessness in London and not resist the changes they propose. There is far more that can be done towards ending poverty than rejecting or resisting these ideas.” It’s clear from listening to her that she believes that it is in combining forces with institutions and individuals that those enduring life on the margins of community can work toward solutions. There remains something hopeful in that outlook and Sheehan has spent the last few years seeking to understand anti-poverty initiatives and those who seek to intervene on behalf of those struggling to escape the oppressive clutches of poverty, mental illness and homelessness.

One other aspect of Sheehan’s outlook was obvious: she is a fearless woman. She willingly tackles those who denigrate her efforts on social media and claims that the best way she can help others in similar circumstances is to build relationships instead of tearing them down.

Abuk and I left this remarkable woman as she made her way to Sanctuary London before she got back to her part-time job in a department store. We talked about how, all too often, Londoners fail to grasp that the best hope poverty has is found in those struggling to escape it – their veracity, adaptability, sense of social justice, and desire to be an active part in a community that seeks to eradicate those things in society that denigrate it.

We came away from meeting a woman we knew very little about with the sense we had been ennobled in some way. “You should write about her, Dad,” suggested Abuk. Now that I have, I am even more inspired.

 

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.”

Digital Citizenship

Now that he’s out of public office, former President Barack Obama has been going more public with some of the causes that carry special meaning for him, as has his wife Michelle. To be clear, he’s not calling for an increase in the quantity of people to expand but the quality of how they utilize their online resources to better their communities, their countries, their world.

Recently the Obama Foundation issued a challenge to better examine digital citizenship – its potential and pitfalls. The positives everyone is aware of: broader engagement, developments in real time, massive education opportunities, and the ability for everyone to have a voice. But the former president is worried that a whole negative side is emerging from these advantages. As he put it to college students recently in his hometown of Chicago:

“We now have a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them. Rather than expanding their viewpoints, or perhaps even changing them, millions are instead surfing the Net for those things that affirm what they already believe. Obama believes this is happening, “to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

As a result, the Obama Foundation is focusing less on digital participation and more on what it terms “digital demeanour.” So it asks its online website visitors to answer some basic questions at the outset:

  • Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world?
  • What habits to do you want to change about your online life? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health?”
  • What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference – of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

This all sounds great, but Obama has been increasingly voicing his concern over those online trolls and haters who use the medium to blow up their communities instead of building them. And some troubling new research is validating his worries. It’s not just about the fact that Internet can bring out the worst in people, but that such individuals desire their worst to be on public display.

Researchers from the School of Health and Psychology at Federation University at Mount Helen (Australia) discovered that, though trolls may indeed possess a certain sympathy for a subject or group of people, never turn it all ugly and vindictive as a result of their psychopathy. They are astute enough to know what really hurts people or brings out the insecurity in others and use those traits as they engage in online activity. Many hold to important causes like climate change, equality, poverty, race, etc., but their real desire is to harm others. In other words, their hateful state of mind overpowers their care for such causes in a way that it destroys any hope of collaboration or solidarity.

The research concluded that, “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to trolls.” Moreover, research also confirmed that trolls were likely to be high in sadism and have a strong desire to hurt others.

Research like this is something Obama and his foundation are closely following, for good reason: such individuals are relentlessly are looking to destroy others online at the same time as they purport to believe in valued causes – like citizenship itself. Obama knows well enough that most citizens avoid such caustic voices. The problem is that those naturally inclined to collaboration, goodwill, or compassion remain silent to such a negative online presence. The former president is increasingly calling for citizens who care about their community and their country to emerge from their hesitancy and denounce such pathological behaviour, just as they would if it happened on their street or in their business or school. Digital citizenship means little if it can’t be guarded or defended.

The poet Robert Frost used to say that key to preserving freedom was the courage to be bold. This is what Barack Obama is calling for. But the time will come when we will have to speak out online and denounce those who demean, malign and destroy others online. Compassionate opinions build solidarity and understanding; malignant opinions are a cancer leading to death. Obama thinks the time has come for us to join in the former in order to defeat the latter.

Payette’s Appointment Breaks New Ground – Again

As appointments go, the choice of Julie Payette as Canada’s new Governor General was figuratively out of this world. The former astronaut had completed two missions to the space station and spent seven years as the Canadian Space Agency’s chief astronaut. But her qualifications were far more wide ranging: speaking six languages, commercial pilot, a computer engineer, and active participant in numerous social causes.

Yet there was one key component to add to the appeal of the 53-year old from Montreal and it was pivotal: Payette perfectly fit Canada’s present view of itself. The almost universal testimonials to her appointment were proof enough of that reality and the celebrations prompted by the announcement spoke to our own collective view of present-day Canada in the midst of a troubled world.

This country has a history of doing the unexpected when it comes to the Governor General selection. Two of the last three Governors General were women and each played a dynamic role in presenting a Canadian face that was acceptable not only for domestic consumption but for international appeal. Payette appears more than ready to break new ground in the pattern of Adrienne Clarkson and Michelle Jean, not to mention David Johnson, who preceded her. Their appointments were a tribute, not only the remarkable individuality of these leaders, but to a nation that discerned in them a reflection of itself.

In recent months I’ve been authoring a thematic study of John Buchan, one of John F, Kennedy’s favourite authors, and Canada’s 15th Governor General (1935-1940). Even in those pivotal years as we entered World War Two Canada was willing to break the mould. His appointment created a sensation when it was reported that he was the first commoner ever selected for the position (he was actually the second). Rather than some kind of convenient placeholder from the British House of Lords, as was the tradition, Buchan was an internationally acclaimed author – his most famous work being Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller later made into two major movies.

But Buchan was more than a wordsmith. He worked for the British government in South Africa, oversaw Britain’s spies in World War One, was a Member of Parliament for Scottish universities, an avid adventurer, and a successful businessman and publisher. What Canada was getting in those formative years was an appointee that transcended politics. This was Canada’s first great challenge to the British parliament in saying that it wanted to choose its own Governor General – breaking the historical pattern of selection only by the monarch of England.

Buchan travelled Canada extensively, especially First Nations communities, and fought for the right of individual groups to have their own identities recognized by both government and citizens. After spending years writing on the uniqueness of Canada’s character prior to his appointment, Buchan then began to build on what he had written and helped to transform Canada in the process.

As the appointment of Buchan revealed, and as Payette’s selection affirms, this country loves those individual leaders who are larger than life. When author Brian Moore wrote of the Canada he knew in the 1960s, he spoke honestly: “Walls, both physical and political, have always partitioned this enormous land, turning its citizens’ gaze inward.” Yet our selection of Governors General, especially in recent years, has blown the lid off that assessment. Jean was a refugee who came to Canada from Haiti. Clarkson became a dynamic journalist after arriving from Hong Kong. David Johnson was a brilliant academic and university leader. These last three Governors General alone defy our collective parochialism and domestic preoccupations.

And now we have an astronaut/humanitarian/engineer/francophone/musician/pilot and athlete about to take up residence in Rideau Hall and reflecting the dynamism of a modern nation that is in the process of discovering its role in a changing world. Having orbited the planet some 400 times, Payette’s view of Canada has been of its position within a larger context. For the next few years this remarkably able woman will have the privilege of showing us our own uniqueness and potential in that world. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.

The Process of Becoming

This post can be found in its original London Free Press format here.

“I suppose that a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one,” wrote Mavis Gallant in 1981, to which she added a personal note: “My logical reason is that I have never been anything else, nor has it occurred to me that I might be.”

As we celebrate our country’s 150th birthday today, it’s likely that, in a world full of turmoil and identity crises, millions of Canadians will move through the day in the spirit of Gallant – peaceful, quietly thankful and usually pleasant.

It’s odd that this placid reason for being has survived the tumults of the modern era. Identity struggles are epic across the globe. China, Syria, Britain, Germany, France, Venezuela, and, of course, a deeply divided America – these and many like them are in the throes of questioning their past, fighting through the present, and seeking a different kind of future. This phenomenon has been with us for more some time, causing political scientist Samuel Huntington to ask, “Who are we? Where do we belong?”

Since our birth as a nation we were led to believe that our national character has been formed by three great influences: Britain, France and the United States. We have accommodated the most useful of these societies and tossed out the rest. But only lately have we come to discover that this country’s original indigenous populations were rarely given the opportunity to disseminate the best of their cultural values, natural spirituality, and innate knowledge of this land we call home. For all of our pride about this country, this particular aspect of our past remains our greatest blemish and challenge.

How we have changed in recent decades. We are now far more vast and diverse a people than ever in our history. The world leaves great portions of itself in us as families from every culture expand on what was once familiar and comfortable to us. We are now something “more,” a greater expression of what we once were. We have absorbed so much human character and yet, unlike the current fate of other nations, haven’t come apart – the centre yet holds. We are neither a military or economic superpower, but we are what nations of such magnitude envy – a good people capable of compromise. For all our flaws and imperfections we have refused the path of hatred.

But we are being tested. The greatest changes in our democracy are technology and diversity. We have always had our divisions – East vs. West, North vs. South, English vs. French, rural vs. urban, generation vs. generation – and we have found sufficient accommodation to live in a wary peace. Yet with rapid advances in technology has come the transformational possibility of jumping over historical social boundaries and learning of one another. Nevertheless a new meanness has also been unleashed on the land as citizens use the same technologies to spread animosity, fear, racism and hatred in a fashion that knows no sense of respect, of humility, or even basic decency. These aren’t forces running through our streets, but through our digital networks, and increasingly in our heads. This has become the greatest threat to our bonhomie and will require all of us to raise our standard of collective self-respect.

We have much to protect, attitudes to overcome, and greatness to strive for. But for the moment – this moment – we are the envy of the world for how we have balanced our wealth, our vast natural resources, sense of global responsibility, and our ability to keep it together despite the same pressures that confront other nations. We have become the venerable Swiss Army knife of global utility. Need technological leadership? We are qualified. Peacekeepers? It’s in our national DNA. A righting of wrongs against indigenous communities? We’re working on it, as we are gender equality. An ability to transcend our divisions? That’s been our whole history.

We are fully in the world and an essential part to it. We have been to Dieppe, Dunkirk and D-Day. We flow through the very sinews of the United Nations and global hope. We have invented, skated, taught, sacrificed, and cared for the marginalized of the world, and the respect shown to us is something to which every person travelling with a Canadian flag on their backpack can attest.

We are a people in process and we are not yet as socially just as we will be. But the better angels of our natures still tempt us with the possibilities of sacrifice for the greater good. In an aging and troubled world 150 years is nothing. We are still young enough to believe in our ideals and our ability to turn them into transformation change. We are in the process of “becoming” and a 150th birthday is as good a time to celebrate that as any. Happy Canada Day.

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