The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizenship

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.

The Real Strength of Canada’s Global Influence

This post can be found in its original National Newswatch format here.

So, Canada is bulking up, and with Foreign Affairs Minister Christia Freeland’s unfolding of a new global agenda in the House of Commons last week, there appears to be a serious amount of political capital, not to mention funding, going into the effort. It was substantial enough that columnist Susan Delacourt termed it a “manifesto” – a finger in Donald Trump’s eye.

There’s a lot of chatter these days about America losing its place of global leadership in the world. Commenting on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change accord, CNN analyst and author, Fareed Zakaria, boldly claimed, “This will be the day that the United States resigned as leader of the free world.”

That’s a hasty judgment. For all of the American president’s actions and rhetoric lately, the United States is too enmeshed in global networking and resourcing to simply step off the leadership escalator and leave the task to other nations. Donald Trump might be making nationalistic noises about making America great again, but too many American citizens and institutions remain engaged in global activity for Trump to simply pull the plug on decades of international responsibility. And there are no signs yet that his brand of isolationism will last more than a few years.

Yet his current nationalism is creating opportunities for other nations to up their game in the arena of global responsibility. Freeland’s speech in the House was a delicate thing, balancing deep respect for America’s historical leadership while, nevertheless, expressing disappointment at our neighbour’s penchant for turning inward.

Around the globe, international leaders are debating how to fill in the gap created by Trump’s retreat. Canada is now to be no different. Freeland’s review was underway prior to Trump’s election but was no doubt hijacked by the American president’s predilection for fraying many of its global alliances and agreements. It gave the review a challenging urgency and sense of focus, and ultimately provided Canada with a new way of looking at its own international influence.

The Trudeau government’s decision to commit $62 billion dollars in defence spending over the next two decades emerged from this new appraisal of Canada’s opportunities in the world, as did the commitment to focus at least 95% of the government’s international assistance allocations towards the empowerment of women and girls, in what is called the government’s “feminist policy.”

And then there is the Prime Minister’s recently announced intention to commit $2.65 billion to assist with international climate change efforts. Trump doesn’t like it, and political opponents are attempting to shred it, but it remains part of a larger cooperative effort to put Canada back on the international stage just at the time the U.S. leader is taking a step back.

All of this goes some distance to expressing the competing outlooks of Trudeau and Trump. Whereas the American president views the world as a moving state of competing nations, each vying for supremacy and advantage, Canada’s PM is betting that the only way to achieve a sense of justice and sustainability is through the kind of global collaboration that sees nations working together for common pursuits. Such approaches are polar opposites of each other, but the days of Pax Americana are slowly giving way as new options take its place.

“Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people.”

Yet for all the military, environmental and gender expansion that Trudeau’s government wants to project, its greatest calling card to the world is the one thing other partners have difficulty achieving: a peaceful domestic environment. Those of us who travel extensively continue to encounter foreign leaders who express sincere interest in our form of federalism. For all our foibles, regional disparities, languages, and political partisanship, the fact that we have held ourselves together while other advanced nations have sailed into troubled waters that threaten the historic world order says something about our own practicality and survivability. If Canada were currently roiling in animosity, the government’s recent global announcements would prove ineffectual.

Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people. Recent efforts to expand our influence in the world aside, comedian Jon Stewart’s observation remains relevant: ““I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.” We will fight if we have to – against injustice, for gender equality, or for a more sustainable planet – but the reality that we remain a peaceful people is still the key attribute that empowers our global influence.

Mine, Yours, Ours

Photo credit: Sasin Tipchai

For all our talk concerning the ability for our communities to enjoy both prosperity and well-being we have proved remarkably one-sided in that approach by consistently allowing prosperity to become the benchmark for the welfare of our communities. Growth and all our rampant belief in its ability to provide a better future is quickly forcing us into a corner, where our desires are no longer affordable and our resources are rapidly dwindling in the process.

What else did we expect? In a world where wealth moves ever upward and the planet comes closer to living on life-support, the results of our mad dash to material nirvana are evident for all who wish to see and acknowledge them. As the New Yorker reminded us recently, we live in a world where only 2% of the world’s income is possessed by the bottom one-fifth of global population. If this practice persists, then it’s inevitable that something has to give. In most cases it’s the poor themselves. Looked at through another lens, the picture becomes even more revealing. A Credit Suisse report recently noted that the world’s 1% presently own more than half of the world’s wealth. That same report reminds us that while the growth of the world economy has doubled in the past quarter-century, the heavy cost for that expansion has been the 60% deterioration of the world’s ecosystems during that same period.

What has been the cause of this great global irony? In a word, inequality. It’s everywhere – between nations, between citizens, within nations, between communities in a fashion that keeps them endlessly competitive, and within those very same cities. It’s affecting everything and leaving us increasingly unsure an insecure in the process.

Is there another way, maybe a better one? Definitely – more than one in fact. But such innovations aren’t likely to find vast public support – at least for a time. Yet around the world communities are striving to find a balance between what we want and what the planet needs, and some have achieved success. They have built into the very sinews of their communities the idea of prosperity that needs to have sustainable lifestyles, individually and collectively.

Prosperity shouldn’t just be about money, economics, and luxury. Somehow we have to get into our minds that there is only so much in the way of resources to go around and that if an abundance of those resources deplete the planet or go to a minority of people at the expense of others, then “prosperity” might be the wrong word. Indeed, prosperity should be about shared living and not just success in isolated existence. Good health, adequate education, mutual respect, meaningful work, community responsibility and heightened citizenship – these, along with a healthy environmental ecosystem, need to be migrated into our very understanding of what prosperity really is and what it involves.

In a report by Professor Tim Jackson for the United Kingdom Sustainable Development Commission that I’ve be rereading while here in Britain this week, emerged a rather bold concept that could conceivably become the only way our planet and its people can survive. Jackson talks about “prosperity without growth” and, given our modern penchant for everything material, it forms a revolutionary statement. It makes sense of another of Jackson’s observations has merit: “the same old, same old, is not longer working.”

If he is correct – and many communities are banking on it – the only way we can survive while perhaps achieving prosperity at the same time is to build sharing economies. In other words, where we used to just collect and collect for our own individual pleasures or purposes, we can learn to share our resources with one another in any way that gives us meaningful and comfortable lives without impoverishing large portions of the human race or depleting the planet’s limited supply of natural resources.

Jackson, and others, favour the phrase “regenerative human culture” as a means for conveying their ideas. If in order to prosper we have to strip the planet at the same time, then eventually everything becomes a lose-lose scenario. But if we learn to collaborate and share the blessings we already have, then society can renew itself, spread the wealth, and heal the planet at the same time. It’s about using what we already have as opposed to inventing ever-new products for us to acquire. The website Global Transition to a New Economy has numerous revealing examples of such an economy action. The idea is simpler than its implementation, but the point is that it is doable. Prosperity for all is created by all of us through collaboration and not so much competition. The initiative SolidarityNYC put the challenge clearly:

Rather than isolating us from one another, shared economies foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice.

Share more while using less. Include others instead of retaining everything in isolation. Try being collaborative instead of competitive. All these are possible but not yet popular. There is much to learn from in our present economic practices, but they never were sufficient as long as they created winners and losers, poverty and wealth, environmental degradation and the a throwaway generation. Shared economies are more than an idea at present. In time they will become the only way ahead.

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