The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: courage

Election 2015: Do What You’re Afraid to Do

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HIS AIDES STRONGLY ENCOURAGED HIM to beg off from the engagement. It was believed that rioting was about to break out across the country, and here in Indianapolis human anger would pour out onto the streets. It was rainy and cold, and so dark that the Life magazine photographer couldn’t shoot what came to be an epic scene. His speechwriter had cobbled together some hasty notes for his boss but they were tucked away, unused.

When Robert Kennedy climbed aboard the flatbed truck that evening, he asked the mayor of the city, “Do they know?” he asked, nodding at the crowd. “To some extent,” came the reply. “We thought we’d leave that up to you.”

It was then that Bobby Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1968, approached the microphone and delivered the devastating news. “I am only going to talk to you for a minute or so because I have some very bad news for all of you … Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis.”

People let out audible screams, sinking to their knees in horror. From the fringes of the mostly black crowd, some men pumped their fists, crying out, “Black Power!” Hundreds burst into tears and shock.

What followed was one of the great speeches in American history – impromptu and transparently sincere. Kennedy reminded those before him that both blacks and whites wanted a country better than what they had, but that violence over King’s death could ruin that dream. He asked them to consider quietly returning home, praying for King’s family, and for the country. He closed off with a clarion call for understanding mixed with justice:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

As stirring as Kennedy’s words were, they were transcended by their very effect on his audience. In 119 cities that night the predicted riots broke out, leaving 46 dead, 2500 injured, and destruction unmatched since the Civil War 100 years earlier. Only one city escaped the violence – Indianapolis. Kennedy had taken himself to the epicenter of the moments and delivered on people’s better aspirations instead of their crippling fears.

In so many dimensions, this is what leadership is supposed to be about – raising hopes and justice above prejudice and the status quo. Kennedy’s aides had pressed him hard to cancel but he understood that if the people before him that night – the nation too – required anything, it was a human being touched to the very depths of the soul.

It is this kind of principled leadership that our present federal election campaign is calling for. It’s not merely struggling over how many refugees to accept, but how to lead the world in bringing peaceable security for the vulnerable everywhere. It’s not just about parts-per-million of CO2 vented into the air, but the courage to bring our collective lifestyle in line with our planet’s vulnerabilities. It’s hardly about bemoaning the growing gap between the rich and poor, but courage necessary to close that gap. And it’s not about minor parliamentary reforms in an age of democratic deficit, but the placing of people at the centre of all political calculations and policies. It’s not enough to tinker; we must transform, and that will take leadership of the highest order.

Political calculations that night in Indianapolis concluded that Kennedy should cancel, not merely for his own safety, but because the optics looks awful. But in his calendar that day he had written down a phrase by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Kennedy tossed prevailing political wisdom out the window and called his nation to something far higher than mere partisan politics could provide or inspire.

We require this kind of fortitude from our leaders in the midst of a vital election campaign. Speak truth to us because we have the power to select. Lift us higher. Help us to take on our greatest challenges with comprehensive policies instead of cheapening us with smaller expectations. We have been running low on the high-octane fuel required for democracy these days and we require better than we’re presently getting. Make us what we collectively can be instead of what we merely individually desire. Help us to stand up for ideals again instead of falling for convenient promises. Speak to us of a just and compassionate nation. Make us collectively meaningful again. Do what you’ve been afraid to do.

Towards the Noise

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ARE CANADIANS STILL A BIG PICTURE PEOPLE? To answer that properly we would have to drill down to where our greatest aspirations reside. And when we do that we discover some hope. At least generally, citizens across the country still affirm their beliefs that they desire their country to practice a peaceful influence in the world, to be more tolerant, to eliminate child poverty, to become a more environmentally sustainable place, to respect our veterans, and to always be ready to lead in innovation and change.

And yet we’ve reached the stage in our national life where we no longer trust our leaders at all levels – political or corporate – to guarantee that we can, in fact, retain these values we believe in. To then say it will have to be up to us as citizens to manage environmental reform, healthcare, poverty reduction, post-secondary education levels, and research, might sound fitting, but no modern and complex society can be managed from such an individualistic template. We require systems change, lots of it, and for that we require organizations as vast and as value-driven as our dreams. This is where citizens can be most effective, as advocates for their children, their future, and their country. And if they are going to raise their voice and press the issues, then many of them are going to have to turn around and head back to the problems.

When Michelle Obama was announced to speak at Oberlin College (Ohio), some groused that they wished it had been her husband instead. They quickly ate their words. From her opening sentence the First Lady owned the podium, the platform, and the audience. Refusing to mince her words, she encouraged the new graduates to refrain from making excuses for inaction and to get involved in the most pressing issues of their generation.

She outwardly acknowledged the gridlock and partisanship that characterized the politics of the day and acknowledging that they might wish to, “recreate what you had here in Oberlin – to find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all the noise.” The problem is, naturally enough, that the big issues mentioned above are what almost all of us believe in, and we can make change unless we ground ourselves in that commonality.

And so Michelle Obama honed in on their aspirations:

“But today I want you to do just the opposite. I want to suggest that … you need to run to, and not away, from the noise. I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens – the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great story unfolds … This is how democracy operates. It is loud and messy, and it’s not particularly warm and fuzzy.”

That’s just the problem though, isn’t it? We want the warm and fuzzy, but can’t get it in today’s politics because of the meanness of it all, and so we seek the comfort of the like-minded. But policy can never change if we merely have our own camp meetings. Think of Tommy Douglas and his willingness to enter the lion’s den of politics, to partner with those he often disagreed with, and come out of it all with a shared program for national healthcare.

In her speech, Michelle Obama talked of how Martin Luther King Jr., not wanting to be a politician himself, nevertheless went to state capitals and to Washington D. C. to seek the justice he required. Yet he refused to go alone, bringing people from various communities, many of whom were suspicious of one another, to make a collective appeal. Talk about messy – they endured stones, bottles, firehoses, taunts, police brutality, and even death, all for the sake of a dream. Yet the sheer numbers of those citizens who showed up were enough to overcome the gridlock and inaction that so characterized previous governments.

We might be fed up with politics, and we might despair of ever truly changing the political structure itself, but rather than waiting for that to happen, or merely voting for the next big thing, we must come together and do so in sufficient numbers to truly bring the change we seek. In order to effectively run towards the noise we first have to make our own collective sound of anguish, hope, and resolve to change our own world and the politics that is keeping us from it. The enemy isn’t politics, for it is the only medium from which we can enact the reform and renaissance we seek. Our true foe is our unwillingness to come together as communities into one community, as voice into one voice, and as parts of a nation into one nation. Time to bring out the megaphone and start walking towards the fire.

 

Experience: The Lifeblood of Leadership

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SHE DIDN’T START OUT WITH HER PRESENT position, but where she has ended up has placed her at the epicentre of the political/economic debate in America. In 1978, Congress had passed a law making it easier for individuals and companies to declare bankruptcy. It had upset Elizabeth Warren and so she, “set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters and that those declaring bankruptcy should be exposed, “because they were just taking advantage of the rest of us.”

She was smart, shrewd, and had research assistants to prove her case. The problem was, she was wrong. The research revealed that the vast majority of those in bankruptcy courts were from hardworking middle-class families, or from small businesses, who had their life savings wiped out. “It changed my vision,” she said. With her researchers she set about to explore what those forces were that were creating all the financial havoc. Things were convoluted at first but it wasn’t long until she came to understand that the lending and financial institutions had successfully worked themselves a sweet deal. It was this “Damascus experience,” as she called it, that redirected her life until she ended up in politics.

What most forget is that Warren is a senior, born in 1949 – a reality that saw her witness both the rise and the fall of the great American middle-class experiment. Her own personal life tracks the experiences of that journey and she not only tells it convincingly, she still bears the scars of that narrative. Her age and her intelligence are precisely what qualify her for speaking to all generations about the great economic turbulence that has turned a once stable middle-class world upside down. “If we hollow out the middle-class,” she says, “then the country we know has gone.”

It’s that language, coming from a voice of experience and poignancy, that has created enemies unlike any she has faced previously. One Republican congressman called her a liar on national television, even though the statistics proved her correct. She has also been labelled incompetent, power-hungry, ignored, and perhaps worst of all, a media whore. The over-the-top comments aren’t reserved merely for Republicans; some officials in the Obama administration have proved equally as ignorant. One member of the banking association who is one of the few members from the sector who supports her call for reform, Roger Beverage, put it plainly: “They are all blaming her for something they all swore would never happen.” Exactly. This isn’t something that merely happened to the financial industry; they helped cause it and pave the way for the fantastic earnings it would bring their elite members. Politicians on both sides of the divide have facilitated this injustice against financial equity and they jointly speak out against anyone who points out their culpability – especially a woman as eloquent and powerful as Senator Warren.

She is more than intelligent, more than courageous, and more than tough. Warren is haunted and motivated by the experience of watching as her country’s greatest asset – a remarkable and robust middle-class – is permitted to slide into despair by financial and political barons that should have known better. Nothing is more powerful than a woman or man empowered by ideals seasoned by personal experience.

Do yourself a favour and read her remarkable story and insight in A Fighting Chance. Better yet, listen to the audio version as I did (downloaded from our local public library for free). There is something about her voice that has the timber of a woman who openly admits her shortcomings but refuses to shy away from her beliefs. The first half of the book chronicles the very human story of a woman attempting to juggle so many responsibilities but who could never permit the lessons of government and financial failures to be put to the side. Warren is one of those remarkable people who fights for more than her own survival and empowerment, offering her life and experience to an entire country despite the personal cost.

Citizens will only trust those who, in turn, trust them. In 65-year old Elizabeth Warren, millions of women and men have at last encountered a politician whose experience has mirrored theirs, but whose courage to fight for all has given hope in a troubled age. In most cases, experience matters far more than opinion and she has it in abundance.  The secret to political reform lies not in the politician but in the citizen who demands the best for their family and community. In this one seminal woman comes the reminder that it’s never politics that changes citizens, but the other way around.

Mayors: You Say You Want A Revolution?

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DOES IT TAKE STRONG DOSES OF COURAGE TO OCCUPY the position of mayor? One wouldn’t think so at the civic level, and yet politics has changed significantly enough that mayors attempting to take their cities along a more successful path must oppose powerful influences that have stood as obstacles to any new direction.

Last week I watched the entire Ken Burns’ seven-part series on the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It was remarkable in the telling.

All three came from generational wealth and could have spent their lifetimes plying their investments and overseeing their small empires. Instead they believed that their financial security required that they expended their lifetimes cultivating the public good, and their chief vehicle for ensuring that effect was politics.

Burns didn’t whitewash their faults – the warmongering, dalliances, prejudicial tendencies, and the policy oversights – but time and again he chronicled how they overcame such flaws to repeatedly side with the average citizen against the financial barons and corporations. In so doing, the documentarian made their actions pertinent to our time of growing financial inequity.

Intentionally or not, Burns brought out the inherent weaknesses in our present-day politics. The disappointing failure of many of our current “leaders” is glaring by comparison.  In researching for this series on vital mayors around the world, the subject of fighting the moneyed interests and corruption repeatedly factors into their stories. Many are innovative and visionary, but what they possess in good measure is courage. For years they watched as their people continued losing out to those with financial clout and when their time came to become mayor they began serious efforts to put the average citizen and the public good at the centre of their efforts.

Obviously in the developing world, where poverty has been deeply rooted for centuries, we would expect such economic divisions and admire those who confront them. Yet the Roosevelts in the documentary understood well enough that if politics continued to coddle the wealthy in increasing measure then it was only a matter of time until conditions were created that mirrored the oppressive conditions in poorer nations.

I wondered while watching the series how the Roosevelts would have fared against present-day Wall Street, with its almost invincible sense of privilege and infallibility. It also made me consider that, with the focus of politics moving increasingly to the city level, that fortitude must become an essential to any head elected official.

Citizens require more champions now than ever, and if not a mayor, then who? As Professor Joseph Palermo noted in a recent article:

“Today, when we see politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bludgeoning teachers’ unions while supping at the table of big campaign donors from Wall Street we’re left with the realization that working people have few reliable advocates for their interests anymore.”

His observations are from America, where powerful interests often reach heights of influence greater than senior politicians. Yet every political jurisdiction has them, and cities are no exception. Municipalities most often get into trouble over a period of decades – a period where self-serving interests frequently gain an upper hand. To pull a city out of such a downward spiral doesn’t just require skill, diplomacy, tact, or vision; there must be courage to fight for the average person again. The ability to stand up to historic power brokers is now required by mayors more now than ever before.

With cities increasingly bearing both the problems and potential of modern democracy, the time for competent management in our cities is not enough. Things must change and that requires champions, not just organizational ability. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it regarding another subject: “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”

Mayors can no longer merely manage the status quo. In a time of democratic decline in our cities, standing up for one’s fellow citizens becomes a revolutionary act. And revolution is about challenging those power structures that got us into trouble in the first place. It is time to stop treating them as merely taxpayers, but vital investors in community in their own right.

Citizen Gifts – Daring

truth-1With democracy in varying degrees of turbulence globally, and with the opportunity for citizens to make their mark, the next few blogs will be about gifts citizens might consider giving themselves – just in time for Christmas.

Throughout 2008, Iceland suffered some of the worst effects of the global economic meltdown. Its private banks went into default, entered bankruptcy, leading to the largest collapse of a nation’s economy, relative to its size, in the history of the world. The coalition government at the time opted to bail out the banks by requiring each citizen of Iceland to pay 100 Euros a month for 15 years. Icelandic citizens, showing a remarkable ability to come together, forced the government to hold a national referendum on the bailout and 98% voted to reject it.

Citizens had rightly determined that the entire thing was a governance failure as well as an economic one. There was a lot of cronyism at the national level and the banking industry had overt influence. How would citizens handle it now that they had spoken so clearly in the referendum? Well, that’s just it; the way they reacted represented one of the most daring attempts to recapture their country in modern times.

They knew that if they remained isolated from one another that all efforts would fail, and so they launched the Anthill – a network of grassroots organizations charged with finding a new vision for the country. A national assembly was established, consisting of 1500 citizens selected by their peers, who were to “energize the wisdom of the population” and develop a manifesto. Recognizing that citizens weren’t about to relax their momentum, the governing parliament installed a Constitutional Assembly, delegating a group of citizens with the “intensely legalistic task” of working in a constitutional council to write an entirely new framework. It was a remarkable development, mostly ignored by the rest of the world.

Every week the Council gathered in meetings televised to the entire country and accessible on the Internet. Every Icelander was invited to send in comments. Draft clauses were posted on the Council’s website. The public availed themselves of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to register their input.

What was the result of all this intense effort? In October, the country held a referendum that asked voters six questions about the completed draft. Two-thirds of the population voted to accept the recommendations. The proposed new Constitution is now back in the hands of the Parliament, awaiting ratification or denial.

What the small nation of Iceland undertook is nothing short of staggering. They didn’t attempt to overthrow their government, but they did combine to stand against its decision to bail out the banks. The rest flowed from that one courageous moment. That one instance of daring, where citizens backed one another in a matter of importance, wasn’t taken lightly. Nor was it entertained at a time of relative peace. The nation, as with many of their counterparts around the world, was suffering through months of deep turbulence where its entire economy was at stake. Yet citizens were so serious about it that the political order understood that the nation was shifting under its feet. Slowly at first, the government eventually permitted more movement for citizen’s groups within the power structure.

Altering a constitution is a deeply serious thing, for such a power arrangement is the bedrock of any country’s identity. For a government to let the general population in on the exercise of writing a new such document is profound. But what was truly remarkable is that the citizens themselves believed they could handle it. Having asked and pushed for change, they were willing to trust one another in the delivery of a new model for how to run their nation. The politicians, seeing such willingness to take responsibility among the citizens, understood well enough that if citizens themselves were permitted to design the change that they then would back the new document.

It is difficult to imagine Canada undertaking such a national exercise in transformational change. Canadians have almost always preferred to press for change without cooperating in large enough numbers to bring it about. But in our communities there are movements emerging that reveal some at least are willing to take things to the next level. They are neither desirous of overthrowing their civic leaders or to pretend that they have all the solutions to our present challenges. Yet – and this is the key element – they comprehend that pressing for change means that they must do so as a citizenry and not merely as a bunch of disassociated individuals.

Citizenship requires serious thinkers, but it also means that such people aren’t mere outliers, tossing their grenades whenever the moment suits them. Those who are truly serious about transformation, change or reform comprehend that all serious daring starts from within the individual before it spills over into the group. One of the greatest gifts we can offer our fellow citizens is our willingness to dare – for ourselves, our communities, our country, for them.

Tolstoy used the say that everyone thinks about changing the world but never about changing themselves. True citizens understand that distinction and take the first step towards transformation by daring acts of change. It is one of the greatest gifts we can grant one another. But remember, the manner of giving means more than the gift itself, and for each of us to step out and take daring moves in our love for democracy is to bestow upon citizenship its highest honour because we were willing to risk ourselves for it.

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