The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democracy

The Lost Art of Disagreement

What makes for a thankful city, a grateful community? Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to ask that question.

Our divisions can overtake what are some of the great qualities of this city. Divisive opinions abound, while common purpose becomes rare. It’s tough to adopt a collective thankful culture while all this is going on.  We’re not alone though; the entire world seems in an increasingly grumpy state.

A recent lecture by U.S. journalist and political commentator Bret Stephens in Sydney, Australia, created quite a buzz online and sheds some light on why a sense of collective gratitude seems harder to come by.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephens bemoaned what he termed “the dying art of disagreement.” While finding agreement is necessary for communities to move ahead, Stephens nevertheless affirmed that disagreement is just as fundamental, reminding his audience that Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks and many other esteemed figures were once in the ranks of those who disagree.

It’s how we disagree that has gone through such a fundamental change, he believes, and the effects are eroding our communities. We’re not talking about the trolls or haters here, but average citizens who care about where they live.

“We seem to disagree about everything,” he said. “We judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”

He could be talking about London. He trots out research to show citizens everywhere are having trouble getting things together and their politics have become dysfunctional as a result.

“The distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

Stephens observed that our online behaviour is hurting our lot as citizens, saying we “increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer have just our own opinions. We also have our own separate facts.”

Such a condition leaves a community inflexible, as the rigidity of our opinions make compromise and respect rare commodities. Everything becomes personal. People get offended and the desire to come together for the sake of community recedes into our past.

As Stephens noted, the consequence of all this has made “the distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”

London’s recent experiences regarding how we will transport people in the future and the state of downtown development have left chasms so deep and voices so entrenched that one wonders whether compromise is even possible. We frequently blame our politicians for the quagmire when all too frequently they are distracted by efforts to keep us from destroying one another.

If our disagreements, and the manner in which we express them, leave us in a kind of permanent enmity, then it remains hard to imagine how such a divided city can effectively lobby for greater investments, whether from the private sector or from senior levels of government.

There must be some sort of process for healing within our community — an ability to restore London’s wholeness and sense of potential. By remaining divided, we become lesser versions of ourselves and our ability to build a highly functional, inclusive and prosperous city is compromised.

And the longer we take to forgive one another or re-engage in a spirit of conciliation, the harder it will be to pull ourselves up off the mat.

We must begin again the exercise of self-government and not just leave everything to the political class. The essence of democracy is that the people themselves create those conditions in which they wish to live. We need a renewed collective commitment to achieve what we can only accomplish as a community that is rich in opinions and ideas but not destroyed by them.

Thinking of how we might live together, Aristotle said “the city comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”

This is what most Londoners seek: a good life.

The potential lying at the heart of our community will never be realized by our politics alone — that should be clear enough to us by now — but also by our innate sense of fair play, of respect for opinions, and for the common desire to build the kind of city in which our families wish to remain.

There is no better time than Thanksgiving weekend to acknowledge our need of one another and our wish to build a better city through all the various ideas brought together in respect and action.

Let’s be thankful that we are still capable of it.

Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Behind Lincoln’s Back

It has become known as one of the greatest protest movements of the modern era, and one of its most poignant and powerful moments was the great March on Washington by those fighting for civil rights. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., some 250,000 people (70% of whom were black) gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It became an iconic moment for how to mobilize and empower a nonviolent rally.

It could have turned out another way, however. John Lewis, now an American black congressman but on that day in 1963 was only 23 years old, tells of a key moment that ultimately turned the rally into a success.

Lewis was an angry and young black activist who had experienced enough of the status quo. He had been beaten by both white protesters and the police, so he was primed for this day to speak his mind. When asked to be one of the opening speakers prior to MLK he readied his remarks as if from a fire and brimstone sermon. He shared parts of his speech with rally organizers. One paragraph read: “We are now involved in a great social revolution. This nation is still a place cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with various forms of economic, political and social exploitation.” He was referring to young president, John Kennedy, and everyone knew it.

He was asked to join a few others behind the majestic seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. “We’ve come this far. Can we stay together? Can you change some things in your speech?” These questions, asked by the Dean of Black Leadership, A. Philip Randolph, infuriated Lewis and he pushed back. He didn’t trust JFK. Then Martin Luther King Jr. reminded him that Kennedy had asked the rally leaders to attend a meeting in the Oval Office with him following the march. If, as a result of Lewis’s volatile speech rioting erupted, then that meeting wouldn’t happen and the civil rights movement would suffer a major setback.

Congressman John Lewis

“I changed the speech on their advice, and I’m glad I did. How could I say no to them?” Lewis said recently. King had reminded Lewis that they had seen white supporters killed by the KKK and that it was a white president who was offering support. “They have to be given a chance,” King urged.

A few hours later they were in Kennedy’s White House office and working out how to collaborate together to work out effective civil rights legislation. It was a remarkable moment that would have been lost had Lewis not listened to wiser counsel and kept his powder dry. All these years later he acknowledges that change was already happening in society and that King and the others had placed their faith in that progress. Lewis could only see the prejudice and the beatings, however, until prevailed upon to expand his perspective.

Looking back on that important day, Lewis acknowledges that if his legitimate but caustic words had been uttered and violent eruptions occurred as a result, it was likely the civil rights legislation would never have passed the Congress of which he is now a member. He learned from King that activism involved two key components: pressing for change and then learning how to spot it once it has begun to occur. He learned that progress isn’t possible without change, but that change can’t be secured unless progress is acknowledged. That remarkable journey taught him something inestimably valuable, and he noted:

“The dissident stance assumed and cultivated patience. It taught us how to wait. It taught us waiting as patience. Waiting as a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness. It is not a sweet lie but a bitter truth. We must wait for the seeds we have planted to grow.”

Many of those revolutionary leaders have now passed, and the few that remain know that their time is brief. But the lessons they learned in those pivotal years have kept their dreams alive instead of flaming out in defeat and discouragement. Our modern era, so full of viewpoints and angry rhetoric, must learn again never to permit a blast of heat to obliterate the light of progress – just like that day behind Abraham Lincoln’s back.

What’s to Become of Labour Day?

Social agencies throughout the country are encountering people who are recently without work or holding down one or two minimum wage jobs as they seek to make ends meet for their families. It’s an endlessly disillusioning process – one showing no sign of abating. Yet, with yesterday being Labour Day, the subject received little mention. Governments can be forgiven for having grown distracted by terrorism, climate change, the struggles of modern democracy and, yes, Donald Trump.

But this is the new world, the new economy, the new reality of employment. Millions are facing it and, despite training and education, they are witnessing that link between work and wealth disappear in real-time and with real fallout. We see what happens when democracy stumbles along through cycles of low voter turnout and the dysfunction that inevitably follows. Suddenly power migrates upward, with citizens cut off from it in ever-increasing ways. Well, it’s now playing out like that with employment. Wealthy owners and shareholders move farther off into the world of the elite and workers helplessly watch them disappear over the horizon in this endlessly globalized world. Unless dealt with, this de-linking will result in the ultimate separation between democracy and wealth.

As Sarah Kessler of Reuters reminded us this past summer, this is actually a discussion that’s been on the agenda for some 500 years. Helpfully, she provided some examples.

 

  • Late-16th century – Queen Elizabeth I denied patent to the inventor of the newly automated sewing machine, fearing it would take away jobs.
  • 1860 – shovellers who handled grain in US ports refused to work with employers who used automated grain elevators.
  • 1930 – John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment” to describe people losing jobs to mechanization. Ironically, he wondered about expanded leisure time, including 15-hour work-weeks.
  • 1950 – the Ford motor company replaced the original engine assembly line with an automated control that performed more than 500 operations, requiring fewer workers.
  • 1995 – Jeremy Rifkin authored the bestselling book The End of Work.
  • 2007 – with the newly arrived millennium, Newsweek magazine placed the future of work on its cover, with Time magazine doing the same two years later. Both articles held out the hope that, “remote work, teleconferencing, and collaboration software” would revolutionize work for the betterment of all.
  • 2013 – researchers at Oxford publish a study on “the future of employment” that predicts almost half of U.S. occupations were at high risk of being automated.

 

This topic has been generating heat and discussion for some time. But it seems more acutely threatening now – a reality noted by author Andrew McAffee: “There’s the obvious evidence, and then the serious rigorous research about the hollowing out of the middle class, the polarization of the economy, the declines in entrepreneurship and mobility. We weren’t as aware of those things three and a half years ago as we are today.”

So, what’s the plan? We’ve heard that federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats are studying the impacts of this rapidly evolving situation, but it remains unclear how all this is being addressed. Two narratives are unfolding at the same time and, depending on which one you are part of, things can get confusing. We are repeatedly told that our economy is, overall, healthy and that prospects are good. On the other hand there are hundreds of thousands of stories emerging from the social agencies mentioned earlier that reveal just how many Canadians are trapped in unemployment or underemployment, between workers without jobs and jobs without workers.

“Wealth without work,” noted Gandhi is one of the world’s seven deadliest social sins. It also constitutes a failure of politics and economics. We’re in a bind and it’s becoming troublingly clear that the vital connection between work and meaning is imploding. Having a job used to mean holding status in a community. One provided for her or his family. Skills were important and applying them with diligence was highly regarded.

Our political parties, and the great structure of bureaucracy around them, know all this to be true, but we keep being told that everything is proceeding as planned. Fair enough, but we’ve been hearing that for 500 years. The real question is how can they get all this new wealth and fragile employment into some kind of coherent policy. Unless that transpires, Labour Day will become more of a historical event than a present cause for celebration.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

 

 

Democracy Bites Back

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 13: Protestors rally against white supremacy and racism in Columbus Circle on August 13, 2017 in New York City. The rally is organized by a New York City based group called ‘Refuse Fascism’ following clashes between white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12th. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in Charlottesville when a car driven by a white supremacist barreled into a crowd of counter-protesters following violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There is no way to adequately describe the Donald Trump phenomenon, regardless of the now countless attempts to get our collective heads around it. It’s gone from being a novelty and growing sense of unease to a place where millions are actually fearing for their democracy. That’s a good thing, and it just could be that Trump’s particular brand of egoism is creating something in America that it couldn’t create by itself – a higher expectation for itself.

The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the past week has sufficiently reminded us what can happen when, and if, leadership refuses to put a clear definition on the very threat such actions and such groups represent to the collective well-being of citizens. Yet it’s also a reminder that Donald Trump didn’t create such depth of animosity, racism, bigotry, hatred and violence. As DeShanne Stokes would put it: “Trump didn’t divide America. He just doused us with gasoline and fanned the flames.”

And there it is: by failing to keep a careful watch on democracy the ghosts of history have returned in a fashion that is deeply painful to all those groups targeted by the haters. But it’s consequently deeply scarring to the rest of us as well. Things are happening in the United States and around the world that are movingly unacceptable to us, but not to the degree to where were are moved sufficiently to prevent them.

If Charlottesville has done anything, it has reminded that a fluid sense of social justice and idealism yet run through civil society and will bite back and display signs of life that many thought had elapsed.

For the alt-right movement this is proving a difficult lesson. Their hope that having something of a mild anarchist in the Oval Office could permit a resurgence for their efforts, has, for now at least, been dashed. They had somehow seen in Trump’s victory and rampant promises to “make America great again” as well as to initiate an immigration ban as something of a moral cover, and opportunity, to “go public” once more and up their cancerous designs.

It is up to citizens and not just voters to show that they dream of something better than the society they tolerate.

Let’s be clear, white nationalism took a severe hit this week – not enough to kill it, but to remind the movement that they are still on the “outs,” as far as the majority of Americans are concerned. For all the criticism of the media, the Republicans and the Democrats, and the entire political order, this past week has revealed a latent sense of decency and political poignancy that would have remained lethargic if Charlottesville hadn’t occurred. And the message was unequivocal: not here, not now, not ever. There would be no room in main street America for such animalistic tendencies.

Democracy, for all its complexities, layers, and confoundedness, is pushing back and it’s likely that the white nationalists underestimated just how much civil society, the media, political elites, and even the world would denounce them. The sheer scope of the opposition to their hateful methods has been compelling.

But the real question remains: is it enough? Comedian Jimmy Fallon, in reacting to Charlottesville and Trump’s tepid reaction, said it was time, “to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights. We cannot do this. We cannot go backward.” He’s right, of course, but are we ready to live our daily lives as living expressions of that reality, or only respond when some horror occurs? It’s an important distinction.

Another comedian, Seth Meyers, put it plainly: “He is not president.” Millions might feel that way, but it’s not true. Donald Trump is in the Oval Office, and citizens, politicians, and the media helped put him there. This is ever the curse of democracy – open elections don’t always result in fair elections. It is up to citizens and not just voters to show that they dream of something better than the society they tolerate. That has been occurring across many fronts in the past few days. The secret is now to turn that into a collective and individual way of life and not just a sentiment.

See this post in its original Huffington Post format here.

 

 

 

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