The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: enlightenment

Keeping a Community’s Soul Intact


FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, LIBRARIES WERE LIKE CASTLES of private knowledge. Even then they contained thoughts and ideas that could be dangerous, forming part of the justification for invading armies to ransack and burn them to the ground. The reasoning was simple: destroy a culture’s collected memory and you can wipe out the culture itself.

Except it didn’t work that way. Memories and acquired wisdom are dynamic things that, when called upon, still empower a citizenry even when their books are taken away. And almost immediately they begin building places of knowledge again.

For that very reason libraries have to be permeable, fluid things. Civilizations ebb and flow, and as long as enlightenment and knowledge are essential to progress libraries will be found at the centre of community life – not because they house books, but because they house our collective spirit, assisting us to adapt.

Libraries have manifested themselves in public and private life in thousands of ways. I recall when former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told me of a remarkable library compiled and operated by the children of Auschwitz, recently mentioned in a New York Times article. Made up of only eight volumes, the books were hidden at night only to be distributed the next day – a moving story giving credence to Joan Bauer’s sage observation, “When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.” As long as those volumes lived, so did hope and enlightenment.

There are the lending libraries increasingly displayed in neighbourhood front yards, or those slowly built and donated by book clubs. All of these are just further indications that libraries of all sizes and forms are built to adapt to however knowledge is transmitted.

None of this is lost on London, Ontario’s civic council and administration as they work their way through budget deliberations. In greater numbers, citizens have been pulling together for causes. In neighbourhoods that gradual awakening has taken to our public libraries in search of ideas, conversation, engagement, and a convenient place to gather. In the past year alone formal gatherings have moved through the central and branch library buildings to discuss our relationship with the Thames River, to collect citizen input on issues like poverty and the environment, as a gathering place for the faith community to speak about financial equity and social justice, and for countless discussions on neighbourhood issues.

Far from receding into the shadows of their bookshelves, London’s libraries have emerged even further into public life as pivotal intersections of local democracy. At a time when financially strapped governments often respond to fiscal challenges by cutting funds for culture, libraries, perhaps London’s especially, remind us that when culture itself is mobilizing, citizens require publicly funded places to gather, talk, and learn more than ever. If we wish to strengthen our cities, libraries will stand at the core of that public work.

Our libraries aren’t mere structures, but experiments in community living that can never be truly completed because how people live together is ever in a state of flux. In the process, citizens themselves are evolving. One librarian put it years ago that when she entered the building first thing in the morning that she got the sense its shelves and atmosphere were breathing. That was because it reflected the growing dynamics of the community in which it found itself.

Author Toby Forward noted that, “Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.” London’s libraries have flourished in part because they have not only caught the wave of civic renewal but have induced it. In so doing they have kept our city’s soul intact. Supporting our libraries still remains a revolutionary act – a direct signal to those in power that dynamic civic life requires energized citizens, and enlightened places in which they can gather. Libraries will remain as strong as citizens are engaged, and right now they are teeming.

More Than Buildings

Ater b and w

“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.





A City of Soul


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 Partisan Mind (2)


It seemed like a sincere enough request.  I was being asked by an MP from another party if I’d like to have a drink with other MPs just to be social.  “Sure,” I responded, and that evening, following a late vote in the House, we retired to a favourite watering hole in Ottawa.  Nine of us had gathered, from every party but one.  I listened in fascination as we all complained about how impossible it was to accomplish any cross-party cooperation because our party positions were so rigid.  Government and opposition MPs that evening bemoaned the decline of democracy but we were all stymied as to what to do about it.  When it was suggested that we take a public stand in the House for more cooperation and less animosity, the response was muted.

This is an all-too-common occurrence in our modern political structure, and not only in Canada.  The majority of elected representatives that I knew during my brief sojourn in politics were decent and hard working.  They easily could have worked together in a company or a non-profit organization.  Instead, all of us were stuck in a partisan world that brokered little innovation. We were as varied as a field full of daisies but, in the end, we had an essential likeness that spoke of timidity and the odd scent of barrenness.

This is ever the problem when partisanship has gone off the deep end.  Individuals caught in its tentacles steer their course by the lesser light of their prejudices.  Their convictions run by instinct and their thoughts run in an endless feedback loop.  There are endless assertions but few enlightened arguments.  Such individuals, wandering in their limited possibilities, always require some kind of prophet – a leader who can fill in the gap between their own emptiness and a hoped for ideal.

We have all experienced this in one form or another.  Our very narrowness and lack of public spirit make those better angels of our respective natures all the more futile because they can only function in conformity.  We achieve a kind of sure trust and yet its field of vision is so narrow.  If we aren’t careful, such tendencies can create a kind of sterility of which we are not conscious – a kind of inner lack that robs us of the kind of comprehensive compassion required to efficiently manage the public space.  And it perverts our conduct in a fashion that can sadly lose the public trust – a reality all of our political parties face at present.

These three blog posts are designed for the average person who is interested in politics but who can feel the temptations that limit public possibilities when private passions are followed. There are always those with rabid opinions who seek to divide citizens and those who desire to stay so neutral that they have little to offer in the way of actionable items in the public space.  These blog posts aren’t for such voices.

Good people function in every political party and seek the best for their communities and the country.  We aren’t guns for hire, nor do we have the wish to defile the public space.  And yet powerful forces are at work in both politics and human nature that can draw us into swirling side eddies by offering us quicker paths to power and influence.  It is in our own best interest, and those of our communities, to take the more complex route of deliberative dialogue and the willingness to compromise.

The reason for all this is simple: the white-hot nature of partisan politics makes it impossible to function on our public streets – the very thoroughfares of community that we all care about.  The public rejects such displays outright.

Modern democracy doesn’t seek to carpet bomb nor demean someone of a different viewpoint. It requires a dedication to the method of inquiry, a certain intelligent detachment, and free exchange of views in respect.   Such an attitude, without our intention or even awareness, is capable of creating a series of mini-revolutions that bring about a catalyst in our politics – a refinement that brings about change through process instead of brinksmanship through major revolution.  Should the political order fail to provide for such possibilities, then it is only a matter of time until more violent solutions are pursued and the moment of opportunity for nuanced progress is lost.

Such possibilities must ever be in the mind of the well-meaning partisan.  If we were honest, we would admit that it is almost impossible to maintain a blind loyalty to a political party if we always seek new research, ideas and renaissance.  It is our enlightened minds that should claim our ultimate loyalty, not a group or an individual with a guidebook of simple equations and answers.  The very fires that rage in our minds and seek change for the betterment of people must never be permitted to burn their own path through the public space, destroying decades of investment in their wake.  Reasonable partisans are better than that and permit their hard-won convictions to be moderated by the well-meaning views of others.

As Chogyam Trungpa put it: “Personal enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.”  Our communities demand our better selves – the part of us that delights in shared accomplishments over private prejudices.  Partisans have a key place in such a world, but only when they understand their respectful place in the broader community.

Citizen Gifts – Innovation

fire in handsDifficult economic times have a tendency to get communities to pull into themselves. No light appears at the end of the tunnel, no dawn on the horizon. The longer we remain in such circumstances the easier it becomes to just go along to get along. Citizens pass by and acknowledge one another, but no sparks are kindled, no dreams established. Citizenship, even democracy, often succumbs and “goes dark” for a time.

But there are those who refuse to adopt the spirit of such an age and work relentlessly to bring new measures of hope and adaptability to society, ruminating in their minds about how best they can aid humanity. Famed Canadian author, Robertson Davies, wrote stories about such people, saying, “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

For one brief 20-year period (1735-1755) some of the “extraordinary” people refused to succumb to the difficult years previous and brought a remarkable amount of innovation to their generation – so much so that the word “optimism” was used for the first time in 1737.

The accomplishments began to unfold when Linnaeus named and classified all of known botany. The French naturalist Comte de Buffon systematized all of natural history into a 36-volume set. Thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Scotsman David Hume plumbed the depths of the nature of humanity and the moral foundations of law and science that it proposed to live by. We are all aware of Benjamin Franklin, his kite, and how he demonstrated electricity from lightning. Samuel Johnson, summoning up great individual effort, gave the English language its first dictionary. The first set of Encyclopedias was developed in France by Denis Diderot.

No less than 150 newspapers and journals circulated throughout England during those 20 years. The novel was first developed. At its first London performance, Handel’s Messiah created such a profound impression that by the time of “Hallelujah Chorus” at its conclusion, King George II rose to his feet, along with the rest of the audience – a tradition still practiced to this day. Someone destined to shape the progress of the American continent – Thomas Jefferson – was born during these years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his Social Contract on the rights and responsibilities of self-government.

This list could go for a time yet, but just this cursory look reveals a remarkable era of innovation, social solidarity, spirituality, and knowledge that blossomed in what has been termed the Enlightenment. And what we discover is that much of the groundwork for these developments took place in the dark age that preceded their eventual unfolding. They worked through the days of despair in order to deliver to humanity a progressive view of itself.

These were the things that “appeared” over a two-decade period of time. But what is just as remarkable is what declined or disappeared as a result of that era. Child labour was eventually banished. The insane were delivered from the harsh treatment they historically received and provided more support. Death penalties were done away with or reduced. Perhaps most significant of all, a spark was lit that led to the abolition of slavery.

This last development reveals a clear sign of how humanity was looking at itself through a new and developing lens. It was personified in William Wilberforce who later built on the work of the Enlightenment thinkers and stirred a great movement among citizens that was to eventually force the hand of governments and their empires. His efforts are often portrayed as lofty and, at times, elitist, but a look at his everyday activities reveals a citizen in motion, engaging his peers in the process. He led a movement that held countless meetings, printed pamphlets, collected information on the horrors of slavery, and advocated governments to change the law. Wilberforce’s success at galvanizing other citizens became profound and powerful enough that in the end governments had to listen. In the words of one commentator, “the energized citizenry melted the hard prudence of statesmen.” A few years later slavery was finally abolished in the British empire.

From the worst of times can come the best of times. “Optimism” can again become a more prominent part of our collective demeanour. For centuries people believed that the powers that be simply controlled too much of the economic, social and religious structures and that resistance was futile. But as citizens began backing causes, pursuing the betterment of humanity, and coming together, cracks began to appear in the governing structures. Autocracies crumbled in the wake of a people energized about their own generation.

I know citizens – good people all – who are breaking the ground for a new age of equity, opportunity and basic fairness. They are meeting in the real birthplaces of democracy – homes, board rooms, coffee shops, libraries, even churches, and they are planting seeds on hardened soil. But the ground will eventually break and their diligent efforts will prepare us for a new age of democracy.

The entire original Christmas story tells of one grand act of innovation.  Clearly, few were expecting it. A manger? Shepherds? Wisemen? A star? It was a bold new stroke in the broad tapestry of humanity and it taught us that innovation is possible in any age. This holiday season a timely gift would be to provide those who you know are fighting the good fight with the support and belief they require to change their world. It’s what brings imagination to citizenship and hope to our age.

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