The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: conservatism

Citizenship – “Retail Therapy”

Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 came as a profound shock, but what the public never knew was that she was under intense psychoanalysis from Anna Freud and her friends. Her former husband and well-known writer Arthur Miller went public, proclaiming that psychoanalysis was imprisoning people rather than freeing them. It all seemed to backfire when a new generation of analysts stepped forward in agreement with Miller’s outlook. Martin Luther King Jr., too, preached a famous sermon on how he was content to be maladjusted because he could never accept inequality or intolerance.

Now psychoanalysts were saying that people were inwardly good and that they should begin expressing their inner selves. Almost overnight citizens went from being depraved beings to delighted consumers. Those inner cravings (the very thing Sigmund Freud feared) became the basis for the emerging “me” generation. The great opportunities for what could have been created by an integrated and aware citizenry suddenly fell to pieces as most went searching for their own individualism. Ironically, a significant student movement began appearing on American campuses to fight against this manifestation of corporate control of outright materialism and government control of militarism in Vietnam.

In some senses tragically, a revolution emphasizing individual pursuits was underway that would shift the western world from social transformation to personal transformation. Corporate think tanks instinctively knew that this was the time to solidify the link between the individual wanting personal choices with a brand new array of choices for things to purchase. The massive industrial economy was quickly giving way to what one might call “retail therapy” – the ability to choose from numerous kinds of cars or stereos instead of the few that had been previously on offer. Corporate leaders pressed politicians to cut the social restraints that had characterized early forms of citizenship and let the consumer free. Economically, it revolutionized western economies; socially, it represented the end of the great citizen compacts that emerged following World War Two.

More and more products filled the marketplace, offering people as many choices as required to express their individual identities. Corporate barons knew that the old society that had just passed was conformist in nature and therefore required little variety in consumer goods. The great dreams of the post-war era – healthcare, universal education, full employment, seniors’ security – gave way to the credit card. For businesses this only made sense and for governments they discovered new life in their economies. But for citizenship and its importance to the democratic process and national life, it was disheartening. The possibilities of the “good society” became lost on business, government and citizens alike.

For capitalism the key issue became the VALS – values and lifestyles – and how to provide the most goods and services to the masses. Massive amounts of funds were put into scientific research concerning the key choices consumers would make. When people said what they wanted, the products would appear shortly thereafter (the steam iron or instant waffles, for instance).  It truly was the beginning of the consumer age.

But one troubling development emerged. If research could show what kind of products consumers wanted, it could also reveal what kind of politicians they preferred. Focus groups suddenly popped up all over the political landscape, especially at the federal level. That research showed, for instance, that people weren’t so much interested in policy as they were in politicians that would just let them be themselves. It also revealed, surprisingly to some, that they preferred Ronald Reagan.

Moderate Republicans reacted negatively, but it polled well and the former actor and political activist began to find favour. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher was stating that, “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.” Sure enough it worked and both were elected with significant mandates. The old industrial era was passing and both leaders said they wouldn’t bail out the millions of unemployed through social programs. It was a bombshell, but few seemed to take notice.

What emerged from all this was a world not all that much different from what we have at present. While economies were retooling from an industrial age to a goods and services era, unemployment levels stayed high, even though more products were being sold than ever before. Reagan and Thatcher greatly expanded the military industrial complexes of their respective societies and both accrued (along with Brian Mulroney) massive deficits and debts. Though Reagan and Mulroney put forward some clear policies on the environment, the consumer forces they unleashed and the debts incurred in the process easily outstripped any progress that was made. There were even greater costs incurred with the social deficits created by all three leaders.

It was over; the citizen had lost, while the consumer soared. When we converse today about citizenship and recapturing the greatness of Canada, we are actually talking about a citizenship that hasn’t existed for two or more decades. It is consumers today that seem to have no limit – leaving committed and active citizens to clean up much of the damage and develop innovative solutions. Soon we’ll have to consider how citizens themselves were culpable in this move to obsolescence and what, if anything, can be done to change it. But first one more final transformation that has led us to the present.

Liberalism – Sidebar #5

Our summer of studies on liberalism has drawn to a close.  Comments have come fast and furious – the constructive have been passed on to others seeking change, the inane have been happily “spammed,” and those of vitriolic hatred have been passed on to the appropriate authorities.

I want to personally thank those who took the time to give thoughtful and thought-provoking replies to the posts.  Such comments affirmed for me the belief that progressives exist in all parties and are frustrated by hyper-partisanship of our present politics.  At least in their sentiments expressed in response to this blog they have proven that well-meaning Canadians need not be ideologically biased or think themselves so intelligent that other views don’t matter.

Just yesterday, I received the following comment that I think best sums up what these posts have been striving for.

“I have been following your series of posts on Liberalism over the past few weeks and must say I am appreciating the groundwork you are laying for a more compassionate foundation for the future of our country. As a small “c” conservative, I find we share much in common. I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to help change the extreme thinking of some of my colleagues is to stay within the conservative ranks and try to be a voice for moderation and sharing like you are promoting from your Liberal position.

What is concerning me more than anything else is that the bar of success in the material world has been set very high and many now consider that any reduction in standard of living, even if they maintain a standard higher than 90% of the rest of the world, is a step backwards. There is an air of entitlement that many are unable to release. This in turn is generating a strong shift to the right, particularly in the United States where people like Glenn Beck can put together rallies with several hundred thousand people who are opposed to any sharing of the wealth. Many of these people are not prepared to even acknowledge the issue of climate change for fear that it costs them in some personal way. They can gloss over the human rights issues because it requires them to move away from their television sets and get involved. They are focused only on the bottom line of themselves.

In addition to your blog, I read several others each day, both left and right leaning.  I fear that there is a strong polarization taking place in our society and the fight will not be pleasant. It seems to me that the voice of reason that you continue to deliver will become increasingly important and hopefully, it will not be drowned out by the yelling on both sides such as you endure each day in question period in parliament.”

Another insightful response came from the opposite end of the country, from a woman in Vancouver.

“I have been troubled all summer by your posts.  I began by thinking you should have been in the NDP party, Glen, but now I realize it doesn’t matter.  All those who you describe as possessing a “progressive spirit” are naturally bonded by their love for this country no matter what their political allegiance.  The more I read your thoughts I realized I had somehow become a coward.  I was a big supporter of Dawn Black of the NDP and her example showed me what a good parliamentarian could do.  But in the process I had become so partisan that all I could see was the point of view of my party.  Not any more.  Through these posts I have learned I was only brave when I was in my own crowd.  Canada deserves better than my frail performance and it will get it.  I will now fight against the slurs and character assassinations of the present political game and I’ll be glad to join with you anytime as we battle for, as you say, “a better public space.”  My NDP roots are strong but my love for Canada is stronger.  Thanks for bring it out of me once again.  At almost 60 years of age, I should have known better.”

Thank you to all the readers and respondents this summer.  Your collective voice and hopes emerged through the vendettas and sheer ignorance of the “digital hit men” and I believe at some point you will prevail.  Liberalism doesn’t belong to the Liberal party alone but to every Canada who believes in the goal of self-empowerment and collective accountability.  Our challenge is now to come together to claim the public space once more.  Thanks for the hope that it’s possible.

Liberalism – Through Hell to Apathy

Visit any Royal Canadian Legion or Army, Navy and Air Force Vets Club (ANAVETS) across the country and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  There are signs everywhere of fateful decline and muted anger.  Supported by our vets from the various services, these gathering points are facing a bleak future.

Legion membership peaked in 1983 at about 600,000 members, but as the Second World War generation of soldiers began dying off, so did much of the membership.  Today it stands at 350,000, scattered across 1506 branches.  Since 2008 alone, 54 branches, mostly in small communities, have closed, and only seven have opened.  Our present champions in Afghanistan make up only a small contingent and won’t be able to add enough of a critical mass to keep the various veterans clubs alive and well in the future.

These are important statistics because they tell a vital demographic tale that lies behind some significant neglect.  Many of us have family members who are veterans and we’ve all felt the nagging suspicion that behind our grand patriotic rhetoric something is deeply amiss.  I spent a few hours in a Legion a last week and the members spoke often of the futility and sense of hopelessness that characterizes their present struggle for survival and recognition.

With our last World War One veteran passing a short while ago, and with World War Two veterans dying off in ever-increasing numbers, it would be tempting to just view this as the tragic passing of a heroic generation.  Yet the neglect has far deeper consequences than that.

There are three main streams of veterans in Canada today.  The aforementioned 155,000 “traditional” veterans are suddenly under stress, as pension benefit plans and other services are being cut.  There are then the second generation of veterans, made up of those from Cyprus, Haiti, Bosnia, Darfur, and the Congo.  These have been long ignored, especially in issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder.  Those veterans of the Afghanistan conflict make up the third group, with many experiencing difficulty in accessing basic services, not only for themselves but their families.  The recently announced cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada only enforced the belief that those days of taking care of those who took care of us are in the past.  It has been a slow and ponderous decline, leaving an impression of inevitability.  The Veterans Charter, signed by the previous government in 2005, was meant to arrest this deterioration, yet it has proved ineffective.

And what are we to make of yesterday’s news that Pat Strogan, a retired colonel, national Veteran’s Ombudsman, and the man charged with defending the rights of veterans and their families, has been let go by the present government?  It’s the wrong message to send at the absolute wrong time.  “Our heroes are suffering,” he opined.  The particular cause of his press conference yesterday was the reduction to the group insurance disability pension for seniors, but he made it clear that problem is far greater in scope.  “These are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters.  The time is now to do something about it.”  This former commander of our military forces in Afghanistan feels this country is failing its heroes in ways far greater than just incremental pension decline.  A class action lawsuit with 6,500 veterans is being launched against the government over its treatment of veterans.

No country can be healthy that denies those that fought for its legacy.  All the fighter jets in the world can’t battle that decline.  It’s all the more baffling considering it is happening under a Conservative administration.  Support for a strong military and its personnel were once as sacred to conservatives as low deficits.

Reasoning that fewer veterans means less need for funding turns common sense on its head.  The gradual waning of a veteran presence in Canada should mean that those fewer remaining should be receiving the “Cadillac” of services.  The money saved as our heroes pass away should lead to more enhanced benefits, especially the solid continuation of outlays for the widows who survive.  A government should never treat veterans as if they’re asking for a hand out when it comes to benefits they were promised.  If it wasn’t for those veterans there would be nothing to hand out in the first place.

A liberal heritage in Canada is one that encourages citizens to self-organize, to put the greater good above their own.  No exercise by any citizenry comes close to the kind of dedication shown in a war effort.  Liberalism should not only acknowledge the reality of this truth, but embody it by rewarding those that provided us the right to practice our philosophy.  The decline in veteran support preceded the present government, yet has taken on sinister tones in the last few years.  It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it always seems to be.

Churchill stated in 1942, that, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Well our veterans did exactly that.  It’s tragic to think they came out of the other side of hell only to arrive at apathy.  This should never be an inevitable slide to indifference.  The loss in veteran numbers should make those who remain more sacred as the years pass, and not just in mere rhetoric.

Liberalism – Larger Than Life

When it comes to a profound influence in the world, liberalism has nothing to apologize for.  The majority of people we know don’t question freedom, rights, peace, equality, the power of the individual, or progressive societies.  These are the gifts of liberalism to Canada and the world, and even conservatives can’t contradict such triumphs of civilization.

The problem for modern liberals is that these successes are now in the past.  To be sure, they are in need of constant refinement, but the basic premise is no longer in doubt.  There aren’t many liberals around these days writing groundbreaking books because the essential paths to progress have already been trod.  The present great task for liberals is not to develop a new vision but to better apply their historic accomplishments to new conditions.

Conservatives, suffering a kind of bankruptcy of thought and vision themselves, have resorted to attempting to roll back liberal advances of the last decades, castigating and deriding liberals in the process.  They have done so in particularly brutal fashion south of the border, with some of that extremism creeping across the 49th parallel.  This is why the mandate of conservatives today is against climate change reform, immigration, gun control, taxes, expanded foreign aid, complex diplomacy or national programming.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand, as when last week the Conservative government opted to cancel the contract of the ombudsman for veterans because he dared accuse the government and its bureaucracy of caring more about saving money than veterans themselves – an irony, given the conservative penchant for military matters.

With conservatives fighting against historic liberal advances, and liberals themselves relying on those very progressive accomplishments as their key reason for being, precious little seems left for the present and the future.  Thus, we fight old wars already won by liberals, splitting the country in the process.  It will be a futile effort in the end because when Canadian citizens are pushed to the wall they will defend their rights, individuality, and equality of opportunity, whether or not they realize these a liberal inheritances.

Canada’s image in the world has largely been advanced by liberal initiatives in everything from peacekeeping to human rights.  The advancement in liberal democracies across the continents has led to an era of globalization, the likes of which the world has never witnessed.  The progress has been so rapid that oversights or unforeseen damage have been inevitable, and to these present-day liberalism must apply itself.  Yet for all the criticisms deployed against globalization itself, there is nevertheless the great outpouring of new generations into the world marketplace.  Those desirous that the forces of globalization restrain themselves in favour of homegrown solutions have all but ignored the pressing reality of what might be called “outmigration” – the massive movement of young people from rural to urban centres, in search of greater economic opportunity and a more lucrative lifestyle.  Whether one agrees with this development or not, it is inevitable and conservatism’s outlook of restraint has nothing to say to this new generation.  Only liberalism can provide the tools necessary to shape the future direction of these millions.

For this reason, Michael Ignatieff’s view of a “networked” world only makes sense because of its sheer inevitability.  The same advancements we have enjoyed can’t be denied others around the world.  There is much to learn from that kind of world, from languages to cultures, from better nutrition to more productive ways of conserving.  The globalization so many fear has been accompanied by the Internet, cell phones, and all the other wonders that have effectively empowered poorer people around the globe to self-organize themselves to forge better lives for their families.  This is the future; it can’t be undone, only opposed and temporarily sidetracked.

Liberalism has arisen at pivotal times to defeat communism, fascism and other forms of totalitarianism.  Now it must apply itself to terrorism – a subject that liberals often leave to conservatives to triumph.  It is now beyond doubt that the angst of terrorism finds rich fodder in poverty and lack of opportunity.  The rise of conservative governments in the West has seen a rise in military engagements to counter this new blight on civilization.  This was necessary and prudent but can only protect against evil forces rather than delivering a death blow in the lands from which they originate.  For that to occur, it will require free markets, key development funds, the empowerment and education of women, political reform and proper heath standards – all liberal legacies.

In a world characterized by acts of evil, the answer is not to merely exhibit “shock and awe” while also creating insecurity among the Canadian people themselves.  It will require a kind of international sophistication that will bring the poor of the world into the ever-increasing numbers of individuals and families slowly emerging from their own poverty.  This will require liberalism – bold and unashamed.

Far from being hopeless or relegated to the past, liberalism is, in fact, on the verge of providing solutions for those problems for which conservatism can only worry about.  Enhanced diplomacy, investments in international development, a global climate change solution, reliance on science and evidence-based advancements – these are the liberal guidelines for which the troubled nations of the world will seek in their desire for advancement.  The liberal future is now.

Liberalism – Spotting Our Friends

Note:  To all those hopelessly ideological liberals out there, you might want to skip this post.

Those significant political challengers to liberalism – communism, fascism, for example – have all receded into history, except for one – conservatism.  It’s called “conservatism” for a reason: the desire to conserve a way of life – the nuclear family, traditional faith, financial holdings, or of a sentimental past.  These are noble views whether people agree or not.  The problem for current conservatism is that the world seems to move perpetually onward and outward.   We live in a modern era, largely empowered by liberalism; that’s just a reality with which conservatism has had to come to terms.

These traditional values within conservatism form part of its appeal.  It’s voice has something of a prophetic quality.  Yet calling for more nostalgic times when society itself has moved on helps it run the risk of being superfluous as a result.  Understanding this, conservatives end up adopting the mantra: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  It’s a difficult transition but successful conservatives make the journey by grafting on the more popular parts of liberalism.  Politically this is done to reach or maintain power; philosophically or socially it is accomplished just to survive.

All of this is historic reality that should be accepted.  Conservatism has shown its relevance well, for when it adapts itself to modern political realities it has displayed great capabilities as both a way of life and in governance.  Which makes the present manifestation of ideological conservatism in its current political form such a conundrum for progressive conservatives.

In both the political and social order, liberals have the responsibility to fight back against the recent conservative emanation of ideologically rigid and anti-intellectual public policy.  Sadly, this has sometimes led liberals, owing to the current government’s hard right turn, to paint with too broad a brush.  In truth, progressive conservatives and liberals have far more in common at present than at first blush, especially in a shared collective alarm of the loose-spending, anti-evidence based policy presently on display.

Since Confederation, liberals and progressive conservatives – politically and philosophically – have established a remarkable nation, and each built upon the accomplishments of the other.  By its very nature liberalism is necessarily a construct of a cross-section of Canadian society at any point in time, and much of the progressive element from both socialist and conservative sectors forms important dynamics within liberalism itself.  It undermines its own prospects, then, when liberals diminish their cherished progressive values resident in other parties. If the liberal future entails the denigration of progressivism wherever it is found, that future will be disappointing.

Liberals must accept conservatism of the progressive as part of the Canadian makeup.  Liberalism starts with what’s there and seeks to bring about individual and collective self-organization within society, saying, “We all have differing persuasions and convictions and we as liberals celebrate that diversity.  We must now construct a workable social and political arrangements out of that diversity that permits each persuasion to flourish without seeking to rule over the others.

People, including liberals, who envision a future without that more traditional and compassionate conservatism are dooming this remarkable country in the process.  It is this same conservatism that has kept liberalism from extending too far; to question liberalism is part of its function and liberals are enriched for that effort.

Stephen Harper has vowed to obliterate liberals from Canada, but he won’t succeed.  But neither will liberals unless they retain the intellectual honesty to separate the fair and tolerant conservatism from the kind that would seek to pit us all against one another.  It’s the yin and the yang, and liberals can never prevail when they become ideological themselves.  The rebuilding of Canada following these recent years of division and decline will be a hopeless cause without our progressive friends from other persuasions in the mix.  In observing that, “intolerance betrays want of faith in one own cause,” Gandhi’s words might well serve as a cautionary tale to all liberals.  This country is tough enough to govern without making enemies out of those who share many of our accomplishments.

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