The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: commitment

Revolutions Without Revolutionaries


‘IF WE REALLY WANT TO MAKE CHANGE, then it’s time we used social media.” We’ve heard this often, but given the experience of the last few years one wonders if it’s accurate. It’s vital, to be sure, but it’s hardly the cure-all for democracy, our communities, or even the fate of humanity.

We can be forgiven for wanting this to be true. The world requires change and we know it. The Internet seemed the obvious tool of choice, and its immediacy and punch often satisfied the momentary emotion we felt. But there’s a sense that its reach (and it is immense) doesn’t quite match its grasp.

The reason for this is what it has always been: revolutionary tools (printing press, television, Internet) don’t necessarily produce revolutionaries. Some great idea will be promoted, people become agitated or inspired, but it is rare that significant enough portions of any population take up the cause. When the Arab Spring was at its height, commenters proclaimed that a new dawn of democracy was on its way. What we witnessed was hopeful, even inspiring, and with Facebook having some 600 million users at the time (10% of the world’s population), revolutionary change appeared around the corner. The numbers were so significant that Time magazine asked, “Is Egypt about to have a Facebook revolution?” One observer maintained that if you want to start a revolution, all you have to do is give people the Internet.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. The entire Western world is saturated with the Internet, yet the numbers of those demanding change and involving themselves to bring about that outcome remain relatively small. Citizens want change, but they don’t want to change their comfort level at the same time. They want cheaper education or better healthcare, but not if it requires more taxes. They continue to voice their disenchantment with modern politics yet refuse to vote. It’s always been this way in history. Revolutionary change only comes when enough people occupy the ramparts and fight the good fight, not merely when they encourage through Facebook or Twitter, as important as that is.

Yet media – social and traditional – can give the impression that more is taking place than really is. It’s what media researchers call “amplification.” Technology critic, Lewis Mumford, talked about this in his seminal work, The Myth of the Machine. Before modern communication technology appeared, ideas and words were communicated person to person, in the printed word, through lore, or in music. In those days it was pretty easy to tell who was onside for change and who wasn’t; there was no digital veil to hide behind. But the modern digital revolution can actually create what appears to be momentum where none exists, even as it creates greater awareness.  Mumford understood this, saying that modern technology “supported and enlarged the capacities of human expression,” but didn’t necessarily lead to a change in conditions.

He was right, and no one can deny that social media is a powerful tool. But the real change agents are people, not their communication mechanisms. Social media can amplify our intentions, but it can also leave us on the sidelines as others take up the cause. Noted author Malcolm Gladwell has continued to question the modern age’s almost blind faith in social media. He observed that the Arab Spring “amplified” globally what was really happening, but that the picture was often more about aspirations than actions from the majority of the populations. He has a point.

If we truly want change, we must take up all the resources at our disposal. Yet the greatest resource of all is the human conscience bent on bringing about social change. True change requires people, citizens willing to take the risk required to let their generation know that they mean business. There is no substitute and no amount of Facebooking will make up for those individuals truly dedicated to their tasks and changing their world. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” Of this there is no digital equivalent.







Lit From Within

IT WAS TOUCHING, HUMOROUS, AND A SIGN of the changing times in our city. Newly elected city council member Jared Zaifman, in a reflection of his Jewish faith, brought in latkes for his counterparts as a celebration of Hanukkah. Zaifman’s reasoning was simple and profound at the same time:

I brought latkes for council and staff to have because very simply, this is a food that I indulge in over this time of the year, and I wanted to share that hospitality and treat with them.  I am very proud of my heritage and traditions, and I think being able to share that and give people a better understanding of my background and practices goes a long way in allowing us a better understanding of one another. I think also like myself, many members on council love the diversity we have in London, and we all want to learn more about that diversity, and sometimes the most fun and enjoyable way to do that, is through food!

The previous evening, Adam Caplan spoke of his Jewish heritage and the importance of Hanukkah during a Christmas community reading celebration at the Grand Theatre.

All of this is important because these young leaders were reminding us that light during the holiday season is about much more than mere celebration. For those celebrating Hanukkah it reflects the miracle of survival and enlightenment, of creating light in a time of darkness. It isn’t merely about celebrating what one has, but recapturing what was lost. For any community seeking to find a future, the lessons of Hanukkah, regardless of one’s background, teach us that we must fight for community or we simply won’t have one to celebrate.

You can read about the history of this great tradition here, but its lessons have endured and continue to redefine what it means for us to live in community. It reminds us that to live together involves dedicated effort and that it is often a hard thing to fight for our ideals. The ancient Jews who watched their Temple desecrated and their community diminished by outside forces learned that falling back on tradition alone would not overcome the darkness they faced. And so they fought a battle that looked to the outside world as the weak taking on the strong. But what everyone overlooked was that this was their community and it was all they had. And so they fought for the life they wanted in order to preserve the history they had known. They recaptured and re-consecrated the most vital building in their community, in the process becoming better prepared for their future simply because they battled for it. A community dedicated to one another is never powerless. Sometimes the only way ahead is the hard way.

Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights” for a reason. When they went about to rededicate their temple, the ancient Jews discovered there wasn’t enough oil in their lamp to burn for more than a day. Yet tradition says it burned for eight days in all, effectively reminding the community that those who labour for its future have more resources than they realize. They believed it was a miracle and that God was behind it, but the lessons learned during that troubling time were ultimately about one essential truth: without light, only darkness is left and the sense of community declines. And a second great lesson emerged, namely that it is inward beauty and light that is ultimately responsible for overcoming the darkness. The Jews were willing to fight and in that resolve their inner enlightenment overcame the outward darkness.

And from that historic moment evolved the tradition of the exchanging of gifts. Perhaps unlike Christmas, where shopping and giving can often be opulent, Hanukkah is about the giving of small gifts as a kind of humble way of acknowledging a festival that was a costly thing to bring about. Lives had been lost, a community had been set back on its heels, and the revitalization of the people hadn’t come through a credit card but the steep cost of struggling together in order to endure.

It has been said that existence isn’t something to be endured but to be lived. That is merely the view of someone who has forgotten the past. To the Jewish people, life is one long story, millennia old, and capable of still producing sadness intermixed with joy. For them living is testifying to the miracle of surviving and growing in collective goodness and justice. It is not about some man in a red suit with eight shiny reindeer, but about a menorah with nine lit candles that brings light at a price.

What Jared Zaifman provided in his gift of latkes and Adam Caplan prompted in his gift of traditional storytelling was a timely reminder that a worthy community doesn’t just switch on some lights, but fights for the enlightenment of all people, regardless of the cost. We all need to thank them for the lesson and their willingness to tell it in a troubled age. Happy Hanukkah.


None Of Us Can Truly Rest



SUMMER IS A FINE TIME FOR WRITING AND I’VE GREATLY ENJOYED putting the final touches on a book on the complex life of Nelson Mandela that I began a year ago before his sad passing.

His death brought out worthy global praise and extolled some of those qualities we so came to love about him: reconciliation, champion of human rights, a powerful personality which he used for the public good, international ambassador for peace, and a vast inner life.

Yet we often overlooked how Mandela felt about poverty and the depth to which it moved him. He had felt it in his own life, but, more than that, he placed human want in the broader context of human rights. Given his universal belief in human equity, what else did we expect? And yet in the glow of all his other great accomplishments and beliefs, we often miss this one. We frequently forget that the great South African leader drew a connection between human rights and poverty that could never be severed in his life, nor in his conduct. He remains one of the great examples of a unified life, one where belief has to be matched with action.

After retiring from public life, and due to his advancing years, Mandela cut down on his schedule. But there was one engagement he didn’t want to miss: Make Poverty History’s 2005 rally in London, England’s Trafalgar Square. His reasoning was powerful enough in itself:

“As you know, I recently announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here. However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

There is no need to go into depth regarding his attitude and philosophy regarding poverty and degradation because if you watch the video below, you’ll get it all. It is what set him apart, for all too often many of us seek rest in a troubled world. And we require that tranquility just as surely as he must have in his later years. But he couldn’t do it, and in that was his greatness. As poverty grows in our own country, Mandela’s life is a reminder that our rest can come at a price and that our lack of watchfulness continues to erode our collective life. Here’s the link to the video.


Mandela’s Legacy and Politics


WITH NELSON MANDELA’S PRESENCE NOW GONE from among us, questions continue to linger about his abiding influence.  Some of it is easy to figure.  As a person of moral stature, it is likely that no one from this present generation will stand as such a colossus of meaning and integrity.  As a family man, his life was mixed – as one would expect from someone so fully dedicated to a cause of freedom and having to spend almost 30 years in prison as a result of that commitment.  As a leader for human rights, his practices were varied, but the ultimate outcomes of his efforts are now beyond dispute.  And as a human being, he has ascended to that rarified realm occupied by people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But will his sojourn on earth have left any lingering effects on politics itself – its usefulness, calling, power, and ability to draw us together?  On that point things aren’t clear.

As a politician himself, it remains difficult to assess someone’s effectiveness who had been elevated to almost godlike status even before entering the rough and tumble world of politics.  His most effective campaigning was done from a prison cell on Robben Island and his influence only grew more magnified by his absence.  That’s not normal in a world where politicians have to put on their game face and attend as many public events as possible.  He had been a revolutionary who somehow ascended to the peak of power through peaceful means.  So, yes, that kind of life represents a challenge to our current practice of politics in almost every sense.  Despite all the eulogies, there remains something rather uncomfortable at watching a grouping of world leaders laud someone’s principles and actions that they have no plan of replicating themselves.  We understand that leaders should be there; but can they not do more than commemorate?

We all know there’s something not right in all this.  When I asked on social media yesterday whether Mandela’s example could result in a new kind of politics there was an immediate response.

  • Dave – “Nothing will rub off.  They are so engrained in their corruption and greed that they can’t even see the hypocrisy of their eulogizing.” (Facebook)
  • George – “First you’d have to create a new kind of human.” (Twitter)
  • Monika – “I have hope, but fear that if it could have, it would have while he was alive and standing up for the rights.  I feel change is left to the living.  We can draw on his legend, but only so much.” (Facebook)
  • Bill – “Being someone even close to the likes of Mandela requires a huge personal sacrifice.  Many of today’s politicians are ego driven, not driven by principles and therefore cannot make the personal sacrifices for the good of the people.” (Facebook)
  • Dave T. – “I don’t think our leaders are ignorant.  I don’t think they are greedy.  If anything, they have lost sight of the reasons why they are in their positions.  Their goals have become skewed.  They are always focused on the next election.  They follow a party line, even if they strongly disagree with some of it.” (Facebook)

So, from a citizen point of view, it doesn’t look good.  Part of Mandela’s greatness in our collective mind comes from the reality that so many others in politics fail to attempt such a standard, opting instead to tow the party line.  Nelson was a moral compass.  Of how many others in politics can we say such a thing?  There are some, but they grow increasingly rare as the political elite become just as lost as the citizenry.

Mandela’s life carries lessons for all of us, not just our leaders.  And in many ways we have all failed to carry the torch he bore for us, even if only for a brief time.  We can castigate our leaders all we want, and there is merit in such an action, but Mandela’s main energies were expended in convincing his fellow citizens that it was they who had to make the change.

Nelson Mandela once said he found a certain rectitude in Vaclav Havel’s observation: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”  The South African leader understood that if he failed at this point – citizens – then leadership would not matter.  So, he stirred them up to a higher calling and bore the scars of that calling in his own life – body and soul.  This is the kind of leadership we require – not just challenging citizens, but actually serving as examples of what cooperation and sacrifice could do.

As we begin this series on Mandela and politics, let’s not fall into the easy trap of blaming the elites.  It’s too late for that.  Their failure to secure such a destiny is daily reducing the public space, it’s true.  But our unwillingness to take them to task – to debate, to challenge, to run for office ourselves, and, yes, to vote – has paved the way for their underperformance.  There is no point in criticizing leaders who merely call to our self-serving instincts.  We are better than this and it’s time to show it.  The question is: will we become that change?

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