The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: dignity

An Empty Spot On the Bench

TV Bill Moyers Journal

WHEN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATES FOR DEMOCRACY ultimately leave the stage through retirement or death, it’s not always true that their absence is noted. Lose a Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or a Maya Angelou and almost immediately the tributes and stories flood the airwaves. Yet every year we lose many of democracy’s greatest champions without even knowing it, often not even recognizing their names. A candle goes out and we merely transfer our interests to another.

The voice of Bill Moyers finally went silent on PBS news stations a few weeks ago, leaving a significant vacancy in our overall struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. Moyers was sage, highly knowledgable, and intensely courageous for those things he devoutly espoused. Some regarded him as a throwback to the past days of journalism, where truth mattered more than mere opinion, and depth of research took precedent over Google. But time is revealing that such a journalistic practice wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world of instant opinions and shallow coverage. Moyers had a way of relentlessly reaching for that better part of our minds that related news with value instead of sensationalism and inspired images in our brains that were planted there by reason as opposed to hyperbole.

He commenced his odyssey with PBS in 1971 and immediately reflected gravitas in a world of rapidly changing media coverage. From that point on he was pressured relentlessly to move his programming instincts to the right of the political spectrum. Each time he refused, not because of personal bias but through his reasoning that the average listener wasn’t so much a partisan as a reasoning individual looking for an objective voice in a turbulent world. And he gave it to them, travelling to countless communities across the country to speak with average people and organizations, giving them a voice as the political and financial elites quietly retreated in their newfound opulence.

Moyers could do it all – eloquent speaker, gifted writer, broadcaster, documentarian, journalist and magazine contributor. It’s not as though the media industry hasn’t taken account of him. He has won 35 Emmy awards (including a lifetime achievement Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, is an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, and numerous others. He accomplished all this by reaching the country through public television, with a venue far smaller than the major networks.

Everyday he reminded citizens that major issues like climate change, unemployment, financial injustice, political ineffectiveness, and global challenges, are important enough for them to keep themselves focused. As he put it recently:

“Ninety-six percent of people believe its important that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91% think it’s not likely that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what’s right to do yet don’t think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democratic ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game’s almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.”

Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren, and like that eloquent woman Senator, Moyers concedes that, “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” There have been many lovers of democracy who have been people of conscience, but Moyers has done it all with personal dignity, a healthy respect for institutions and the individual citizen, and a deep understanding that having an opinion isn’t the same thing as wielding truth.

Our next post will explore how our democratic landscape is changing as the voices of objectivity, respect, and reason slowly move off the scene. The disappearance of Moyers from the public airwaves comes at a time when that voice of veterans and nation builders that flourished following the Second World War pass off everyday one by one, leaving significant holes in our citizenry and our journalism. Those of us who remain surely possess passionate beliefs like those who have preceded us, but do we have the patience, the tolerance, the respect, and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? Who are the next Bill Moyers? And will they come forward?

What Would Jesus Ask Santa?

compassion-hien-nguyen

He was a Christmas angel, though I couldn’t spot it at first.

We had been going into Westmount Mall on Friday evening to just cheer on the volunteers who had been wrapping Christmas presents in return for a donation to the London Food Bank.  It was pouring rain, and on the way in the door I noticed a man standing off to the side who was obviously having a difficult time.  He appeared down and out and discouragement seemed to mark his disposition.  We went on inside and then I suddenly thought better of it.

“I’m getting a coffee for some volunteers inside; can I get you one?” I asked.

He smiled at that point and though he had first declined, he went on to say, “Actually, it’s cold.  A coffee would be great.”

For the next few minutes I couldn’t get him out of my mind.  I wanted to know his story but knew better than to ask.  At Tim Horton’s just inside the door I get him a $10 gift card and passed it to him as I walked outside.

“Thought you might be hungry,” I said as he took the card.

There was a lot of dignity in his handshake and his “Merry Christmas” stirred my heart.

It was only as we got to our SmartCar in the parking lot that I noticed he was following.

“You Mr. Pearson?” he asked.

“I am.  What’s your name?”

We spoke for a moment longer and then he handed me the gift card.  I worried that I had offended him, but his next words drove the meaning of Christmas home in a way I won’t forget.

“Give this to one of those Kellogg’s employees, okay?  One of the ones that lost their jobs.”

The entire panorama of Christmas meaning comes in an exchange just like that.  He told me he had lost his job two years previous, was 58 years of age, and was struggling to get by.  “I’ve had to use the food bank a few times; hope that’s okay?” he stated.  If only he knew that there were 3600 families a month using food bank services, often in circumstances just like his own.

What kind of city is it that produces citizens who, despite oppressive circumstances, reach out to others who just experienced devastating news?  Well, that’s our community – London, Ontario – and through a lot of pain and sense of loss we are populated by local angels just like this man.

The entire experience made me think of Garrison Keillor’s observation: “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”  In circumstances that seemed totally unrelated, a poor man of dignity, Kellogg’s workers, the food bank, the mall, the volunteers, and this humbled citizen were all woven together in a tapestry that could have just as easily been printed on an ideal Christmas card.

I wondered again what kind of Christmas Jesus would ask Santa for, and vice versa, and I think I got some kind of answer.  It would be a world filled with those who could get outside of themselves just as that man had done.  It wouldn’t matter if it was in a manger or a mansion, a hovel or a skyscraper.  As long as the people in such locations could reach out beyond their own circumstances, then Christmas would be a state of mind and not just a season.  A just society would be more about shared than hoarded wealth.  The future of children would be about choice not chance.  Politics would be about purpose not paltriness.  Communities would be about the future not the past.  And people like that man outside the mall would be honoured for their citizenship and sacrifice.  Yup, that’s what Jesus would ask Santa for, and I decided to ask for it too – not out of some kind of ideal, but out of the practical experience I had outside of a mall on a rainy night.

Isn’t this really what the majesty of Christmas can be about – how the dignity of one man fallen on hard times can be celebrated in the house of everyone?  If we can’t understand that in our hearts, then we’ll never find Christmas under a tree.

Knowing about the spirit of Christmas is one thing; actually doing it is another.  Out of his own constrained circumstances one man introduced me to the reality of the spirit of compassion and not just its possibility.  Communities have been built on less but become their greatest when poverty becomes a thing of the past and the richness of the human spirit directs our actions.  May it be so.  Merry Christmas to all of you.  And on earth, peace to all of you of good will.  

Kellogg’s – We’re Not Done Yet

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 6.14.36 PMI LOOKED UP SO SEE FOUR PEOPLE coming down our driveway.  They introduced themselves, but it’s what they said next that set the tone: “We’re from Kellogg’s.”

They were insecure but had lots to say about wanting me back in politics, about the corporate agenda, about what this community has meant to them.  And then, sadly: “Glen, how do we get help from the food bank when the time comes?”

This is rapidly becoming the state of modern community life – people who helped arrange food drives at Kellogg’s were now going to require some of that very food themselves.  This is no way to run a society, and nor is it any way to treat people who built our cities and regions.  Sadly, my morning wasn’t done.

I headed to a local coffee shop and encountered another Kellogg’s employee who wanted to thank me for my blog post the day before and to say how much it meant to the workers.  Yet the sadness on his face said it all.  At that moment, a former Conservative MP – a good friend – walked in the door with his wife.  He reminded us that in 1984, the Mulroney government had granted $223 million to Kellogg’s in London for an expansion project that would make the local plant one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing facilities in the entire company – 1,140,000 square feet. 

“Glen, I was there when the Prime Minister came to down to announce the funds and we were assured by the company that this would make for a prosperous future. What happened?” he asked. 

Simple math would tell us that the our funds were used to assist a company to build a more solid future in London not quite 30 years ago.  Now that company is leaving, having used our investment to make their fortune, and leaving hundreds of devastated families in their wake.  What happened indeed!  We feel like a community undone.

Work seemed to really matter in our community.  But that was before the evolution of the new economy, where elites could move anywhere around the globe in search of cheaper labour; where they would press governments, foreign and domestic, for ever lower taxes and the diminishing of labour and environmental standards, and where the ultimate goal was treating labour as a commodity rather than a standard of dignity or a necessity to community.  Only a generation ago we believed that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody.  The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins.  In a period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.  Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now face the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty.  We are entering an era of cheap people and very expensive machines.  As the world hurtles along this path, directed by a global financial juggernaut of the few, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not our future.

We must find a way to dignify work once more and enable wealth to work for the many. A bleak future is never inevitable in a world where citizens still possess the opportunity to turn their countries around.

So let’s start with some easy steps.  Here are two ideas.

This morning I spoke with my friend, Andrew Lockie, director of the United Way in London, and proposed that our two organizations hold a community reception for Kellogg’s employees in the spring.  Both the United Way and the London Food Bank have been huge beneficiaries of funds and food from these employees.  And that is just what we will do, drawing in other community partners like labour groups, businesses, civil society groups, and citizens aplenty.  We will celebrate and honour those among us who didn’t just live here, but actually built our community.  We are in the process of putting that event together and we trust everyone will be there.

And, then, let’s begin a larger conversation on the future of work.  It was in the 1930s that things seemed so inevitable and that the capitalist barons owned not only their companies and wealth, but the future.  But at some point, citizens and their politicians came together and reversed a trend that seemed inevitable.  The boom that resulted for those moments of daring created the great middle-class.  Of course, we live in a globalized world now and bringing companies back to the community table won’t prove easy.  But if a global consensus can be reached, it can be done.  Capitalism will hang itself if it proceeds down this course. Let’s think of ways we can further that conversation and start talking about the new and valuable work of tomorrow, a more ethical capitalism, living wages, and the important and dignity of work for all of us.

The employees of Kellogg’s, and even the company itself for a time, remind us what is possible when investment in a community matters.  London has some remarkable citizens from Kellogg’s to celebrate, and then we must turn our attention to a future where citizenship – corporate and individual – begins the process of building renewed communities.  We’re not done yet.

Preserving The Best In Us

He was good, real good. Spending this past weekend in Toronto with Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuszanna was a lesson to me in grace. They had been through a tumultuous few years and the kind of federal politics we have in Canada right now can take a severe toll. But as he and I conversed while touring through the ROM museum, he talked of how he loves teaching, of some of the writings he’s doing for various journals, and how he worries over some of the hot spots around the world.

But it was more. He taught my kids how to use chopsticks at a lovely Chinese restaurant that he frequents to help it stay in business in a struggling economy. He worked his way easily through the controls of his new iPhone, much to the delight of all of us. He looked at girl’s shoes with my daughters, discussed his future hopes with my wife, and spent some time with me acknowledging that our friendship had become easier since our political lives had ended.

He wasn’t a man on the rebound from a devastating experience, but rather an intuitive human being who was on top of his game. Still feted around the world, he and Zsuzsanna found time to give us hours of their time. They asked delightful questions, expressed emotion easily, fawned over one another as husband and wife, and made their world large enough to not only include some of the globe’s biggest problems but also a family from London.

When he hugged me goodbye, I felt a deeper emotion than that for which I was prepared. Here was a man whom I defended in defeat but who no longer required such support. In so many real ways he had personally prevailed over some of the very demons that have ruined politics in the modern era. Gone are those days when his shoulders slumped following the election defeat. The politics of indignities and boorishness no longer can claim his mind or his spirit. I watched as people stopped him on the street, sometimes talking politics, most times just saying how much they respected him. He appreciated it, but I acknowledged to my wife Jane that he had reached that stage which former Secretary of the UN Dag Hammarskjold wrote of: “The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others.” He is part of the flotsam and jetsam of demeaning politics and is liberated – free to talk with his neighbours as a neighbour.

You can surely tell that I have a lot of respect for this man, though we are radically different in temperament and I can’t even register on the “intelligence” scale when compared with him. I knew him well in the highs and lows of politics and I watched him bear up under the indignity of being assailed each week by negative ads. But after this weekend, I see them as a husband and wife whose very refinement of nature spelled their recovery. They are human again – unlike the worst of politics. But they yet wish to reach out to a troubled world – just like the best kind of politics. We both wished the best for those who still battle for this kind of respectful politics in Ottawa.

At one point Michael and I watched as the others looked in a shop window, faces pressed against the glass. He suddenly turned, faced the street, and said, “God, Glen, you’re children are just beautiful.” He was right, of course – every parent thinks that. But at that moment I was conscious of looking at the beautiful minds and characters of a husband and wife team who have permitted their internal strengths to bring them back to the place of unfettered service to the world. Look at their faces in the picture above and tell me they aren’t content – as am I. Politics has not heard the last of us as external advocates, but it will never get the best of us as human beings.

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