The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: culture

Lead by Example or Force: Which is It?

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IN 2003, THE U.S. ARMY SPONSORED a conference in Washington to consider the possibilities of soft power, among other things. When asked by the media what he thought of the insights into soft power that had just been presented, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared a bit miffed and answered, “I don’t know what it means.” That lack of understanding and appreciation of power in its other low-key forms would ultimately contribute to the chaotic nature of the Iraq war.

But, in truth, the lack of knowledge of soft power is part of our problem as well, especially as Canada continues to mull over its role as part of the 65-member coalition fighting ISIS. And when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wanted to help lead and not just merely support efforts to combat terrorism, he raised the bar to a level not many are sure we can reach. Canada has accomplished much in this field before, however, and can do so again.

Rumsfeld equated “soft” power with “weak” power, contributing to the perception that he could only envision the greatest form of power itself as something equated with planes, cruise missiles, bombs, and ground forces on the attack. In retrospect, numerous observers now believe that it was the very absence of soft power that made its harder cousin unworkable and unsustainable.

Soft power is the ability to achieve your goals through providing resources and understanding through the local culture as opposed to just winning a war. It isn’t the opposite of military might but a vital complement to it. It isn’t about attracting others to our values, but the recognition that the enduring values of humanitarianism are found in every culture and must be built upon. Yes, it could well involve building democracy in troubled regions, but it could just as easily entail the understanding that the Muslim faith carries deep and abiding values of human respect that go as far back as our own.

Power is about resources just as much as might. Insightful NGOs (non-governmental organizations), often working with military personnel, have used water as a means of conflict management. Often accomplished by the provision of secure corridors for travel or through equipment providing clean water itself, access to this natural resource often alleviates the tensions that trouble regions, clans, and tribes who normally fight over it.

Fourteen years ago, the NGO my wife and I direct in South Sudan was approached to build a secondary school in the region that would be the only one for 600 kilometres. We agreed to try, but only if a 50/50 student ratio would be honoured between boys and girls (girls were often kept from educational opportunities during that time of war). Negotiations ensued for a lengthy time until at last agreement was reached. In five weeks time we travel to South Sudan to officially open the school and hand it over to the Ministry of Education. They have honoured their commitment, and already the possibility of education for girls is transforming the landscape – something seemingly impossible through the medium of bombs, planes, or tanks.

Canadian troops – women and men – have performed remarkable acts of valour in a troubled world for over a century. But we can never overlook all the Canadian humanitarian efforts, sometimes employing military “soft” resources like the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team). It is these activities, as much as our combat efforts, that have earned Canada’s hard-won reputation as a nation that comprehends the value of soft power.

So will it be hard or soft power for Canada? Some will say that it should be both. Perhaps. But our current prime minister is correct in maintaining that it’s difficult to create peace on the ground if you are a nation that is also pummeling the earth and people with bombs. Gandhi was right, too, when he maintained that, “an eye for an eye only makes the world blind.” A military action might promote even more terrorism if we aren’t careful. Canada’s role can be as equally daring, brave, and innovative as any bombing sortie, merely by helping remove the dire conditions on the ground that create the context for terror itself. We are a brave people, and if we must battle we will. But we prefer to fight with our minds and our collective conditioning for peace – a reality as powerful as any military force on earth.

A City of Soul

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THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.

The Culture of Connectedness

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THERE ARE TIMES IN OUR COMMUNITIES WHEN INDIVIDUAL change just isn’t enough. That’s not to minimize the importance of personal transformation and growth, but when the structural problems in our cities face a place of deep challenge after decades of decline, waiting for individuals to catch up to the imposing challenges before us can be an exercise in futility.

Citizenship matters, it’s true. But when the limiting efficiencies of the past keep our lone efforts from creating the change we seek, a new kind of collective citizenship is required – and soon.

For perhaps too long we have counted on the aggregation of individual effort to rebuild our communities. But it’s not working, despite some remarkable individual success stories and achievements. Yet no matter how well intentioned these achievements may be, they fail to reach their ultimate goals. Why? Because our singular lives are touched, but the organizational culture and the larger community remained largely unmoved and unchallenged.

These efforts often fail to realize that there is such a thing as the collective body and ultimate community renewal cannot occur if it remains isolated. There needs to be a communal culture of belonging that inspires others and gets the whole system to move towards reform and renewal. Individual accomplishments and contributions are important, but in addition there must be a culture of connectedness.

This is why it is disillusioning at times to see highly productive individuals leave a city because of their inability to have a greater impact or to produce the quality of life that serves as a place setting for their exploits.

Be It Resolved

broken_promises_by_herrfousNew Years doesn’t quite retain the deeper cultural meanings it used to possess years ago, but it still carries quite a punch.  Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, some of my most vivid memories swirl around New Years Eve, the gathering of family and friends, community celebrations, and, of course, the singing of Auld Lang Syne.  There was a depth of humanity to its words that transcended the moment.  But there was a restrained sadness in its singing, a kind of brooding acknowledgement that the arrival of a new year meant having to deal with some of the more difficult realities of the one just expired.

The words “Auld Lang Syne” could literally be translated as “old long since” and spoke of the passing of time.  They ask a straightforward question, based on the difficult times many citizens in those days had to endure.  The words ask plainly whether old friends and times will be forgotten.  There’s a kind of collective resolution expressed that such a thing won’t happen because, “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”

But there were other verses in the song that we don’t sing in North America but which acknowledge some difficult community realities.  They speak of how friendships used to be strong and animated but how time had distanced those relationships in the words, “broad seas have roared between us.”

The years of the famous song’s origins, as with many eras since, were difficult times when communities struggled to stay together despite strong outside forces that would seek to undermine their history.  There remain some desperately tragic stories of entire communities that disappeared into the mist as time passed them by.  Always, in those early Scotland years for me, was this ongoing tension between hope and sadness whenever the song was sung that was profoundly collective in nature.

Today, New Years has become far more individualistic.  Yes, we gather, drink and dance, but the sense of coming together for the sake of entire communities has receded into memory.  In the place of community experience has come individual resolutions – the willingness to make promises to ourselves that we hope to fulfill in the ensuing months.  We desire to change and better ourselves, which is a wonderful thing.  And yet such actions often take place in isolation: losing weight, eating better, saving money, being more successful.  It is rare anymore to see citizens coming together at New Years and making joint resolutions to better their collective life, to share in resources, and to fight those broader forces seeking to diminish their community identity.

Recent research in the U.S. revealed that 50% of Americans make New Years resolutions, but that, sadly, 88% never carry them out to conclusion.  That’s over 150,000,000 resolutions that failed.  The research went deeper and revealed why it was the people couldn’t maintain that drive.  Put simply, those making such resolutions failed to understand the distinction between a resolution and a habit.  It remains almost impossible to retain a certain practice all year and then suddenly end it just because you feel like it.  The goal shouldn’t be to make a sudden change but to build “instinctual” habits that will eventually assist us to achieve our target.  Resolutions are always vital, but without the discipline to back them up the brain experiences great difficulty in creating changes in our lives that are sustainable.

This New Years, there will be many like me seeking to place a broader focus on our resolutions.  Things won’t be about “us” but “we” and there will be some hope of winning meaning back into the places where we live.  We will resolve to work more with others, to not be as opinionated or unforgiving, to be generous in spirit as opposed to restrained.  But by February or March the old ways stand a great chance of creeping back in and robbing us of our collective promises to one another.

We stand the chance of forgetting once more that for people like Mandela, forgiveness became a daily discipline and generosity of spirit had become a daily habit.  Our communities could use such a message once more.  As years pass, people who were once friends have divided sharply over a particular issue and never resolve to heal the relationship.  Sometimes such divisions occurred over mere opinions and not any particular actions.  Surely such troubles could be healed, friendships restored, and collective action for the sake of community be put back on track.

If citizens become so political every day that they refuse to congregate and work together because of hyped-up partisan instincts, then our cities will be at a loss.  If everything depends on one political tribe beating another into submission, where is the space left for magnanimous communities or shared purpose?  Instead of uniting us in difficult times, politics has taken on the nature of dividing over partisan feuds.

So let us this New Years make one collective resolution.  Be it resolved that we will create empowering citizen habits that will see us spend the next 365 days healing old wounds, salving areas of historic pain, using social media as an aggregator of commonality as opposed to a mere bulletin board of random opinions and postings that often divide us, and supporting those institutions that would seek to bring us together.  Given the challenges we now face, let’s build those habits of healthy citizenship that can see us resolve actions together that we can actually complete.  Happy New Year to all.

Fishtown

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Ever heard of Fishtown?  Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” has been arguing for as long as people would listen that poverty involves much more than just an economic predicament.  The longer people are trapped in it, he reasons, the more poverty drains the moral and ethical depths of modern society.  He believes it all started in the 1960s, when fundamental trusts – self-restraint, family, personal responsibility, faith, politics and country – began to be undermined.  The result has been a kind of social deterioration that situates people living in poverty beyond the normal restraints of low-income and in depleted communities that no longer have the resolve to deal with such situations in the complex manner they deserve.  Just providing even a basic income for such families might not provide the effect for which policy makers would hope.

To illustrate our modern predicament, Murray came up with the fictional community called Fishtown and laid out what he believed was transpiring in normal communities across North America.

Now let us return to the relationship of Fishtown’s decline with America’s civic culture.  The decline of industriousness among Fishtown males strikes at the heart of the signature of civic culture – the spirit of enterprise, stick-to-it-iveness, and hard work to make a better life for oneself and one’s children.  The divergence in marriage and the rise of single-parent homes has cascading effects.  The webs of civic engagement in an ordinary community are spun largely by parents who are trying to foster the right environment for their children – lobbying the city council to install four-way stop signs at an intersection where children play, coaching the Little League teams, using the P.T.A. to improve the neighbourhood school.  For that matter, many of the broader political issues in a town or small city are fought out because of their direct and indirect effects on the environment for raising children.  Married fathers are a good source of labour for these tasks.  Unmarried fathers are not.  Nor can the void be filled by the moms.  Single mothers who want to foster the right environment for their children are usually doing double duty already, trying to be the breadwinner and an attentive parent at the same time.  Few single mothers have much or energy to spare for community activities.”

In other words, the devastating effects of unemployment and poverty leave a troubling legacy on citizens, especially mothers, and males who have been used to being contributors to community life.

Culture is a fluid thing.  Provide the kind of stability that good public policy can enhance, such as in the decades following the Second World War, and culture can have a profound effect just because of its longevity.  But the topsy-turvy world of our recent political and economic sectors has witnessed a slow undermining of institutions and practices that once were essential to establishing better futures for our children.  It is one thing to endure a season of poverty due to occasional recessions, but the gradual expansion of the low-income class in our country begins to have effect on the world we are presently building.  If sustained poverty is no longer a moral travesty to be solved but becomes, instead, an abiding and growing reality in our communities that we learn to accept, then the very essence of what we once believed about society quickly becomes negotiable and expendable.

Poverty shapes the minds of the people entrapped in it in ways that we are only now becoming more cognizant of.  New research suggests that ongoing poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain.  So much time is spent wrestling with poverty’s realities – scarce resources, poor health, lack of nutritious foodstuffs, the ever wrestling between income and expenses – that those in poverty have little left with which to concentrate on the positives, like education, community, legacy, parenting, or employment.

Worse, scientists now believe that such drains on the brain build over time.  If a child is reared in poverty, those experiences will linger into their adulthood.  Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that those who grow up poor developed impaired brain function as adults.  They experienced greater difficulty in managing their emotions or in balancing the numerous demands on time and resources.  Regardless of what their income status was at the age of 24, all those years in poverty left lasting consequences in adaptability and progress. 

Considered as a whole, the research implies that sustained poverty continually taxes the brain of the adults to such a degree that truly caring for their children becomes exceedingly difficult.  The researchers termed this “trajectories” of those experiencing poverty over lengthy periods of time. 

As long as any modern society permits sustained periods of poverty immersion, it will have to come to terms with the troubling reality that the fruits of such tolerance will carry over for generations.  The greatest problem regarding the growth in poverty in Canadian society is not so much its presence, but its permanence.  No simplistic answer will do.  The only effective solution will involve complex societal, economic, political, ethical, and employment interventions set within the context of a society that will no longer accept a form of poverty that becomes sustained.  If, as many suggest, we are the smartest generation in history, surely we can build consensus and utilize the tools to accomplish it.

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