The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: fear

The Dangers of Coping

They arrived in a manila package at our Calgary home one day, sometime in 1956. Our family gathered around as Dad pulled out the architectural drawings and laid them on the table. They were plans for how to construct and stock a bomb shelter in case of an atomic war. A large silver siren located on top of a long white pole occasionally reminded us of that fact, as occasionally it would emit a practice wail in preparation for the real thing.

For an entire generation of Canadians, none of this is strange. The Cold War was actually heating up and the threat to human existence always seemed to hang precariously in the balance. Popular music and movies were always there to remind us of the threat. The euphoria of the end of the great global conflict in 1945 didn’t last long, as both the Soviet Union and the United States made their fearful moves for world domination. But the decades following took on something of a standoff between the superpowers until the Soviet Union collapsed some 25 years ago. The era of a renewed internationalism began, along with a boost in confidence for a more peaceful future.

Suddenly the term “Cold War” has made a rapid comeback. Even before the recent American election, USA Today spoke of, “A New Cold War?” and CNN ran as one of its headlines: “Cold War-style conflict.” This past week, the Toronto Star reported of apocalypse survival food kits being sold by Costco Canada. This country, which has historically been one of the key boosters of internationalism, is now looking on in mild alarm as nationalism not only flourishes south of the border and in key European states, but is subtly emerging in various Canadian contexts, including the Conservative leadership race.

This country is finding itself impinged in the vice between nationalism and internationalism. Trump’s bewildering sense of American identity represents just as much a challenge to Justin Trudeau as Vladimir Putin’s rampant militarism. This isn’t just about nuclear weapons, but cyber warfare and the flagrantly hostile actions of Russia over other nations. In such a context, peacekeeping and good intentions seem somehow underwhelming. As Robert Legvold, political scientist and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, sees it, “we have entered a second Cold War, only perhaps more dangerous because of the unstable global environment and the more modern challenges of cyber warfare and terrorism.”

The Cold War might be returning for another round of global freezing, but this time it’s different. Where the United States and its partners made direct military interventions in places like Vietnam, Korea, even Bosnia, you’ll see nothing similar in Crimea or the Ukraine, where Russia roams with menace. And as China brandishes its might in the South China Sea, we seem to have entered a period of great uncertainty where Canada, like other nations, must reassess the manner of its own engagement in such a turbulent world.

With a fractured Western coalition and a surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic that is frequently isolationist in nature, Canada is seeking to walk a fine line between playing a global role for progress and keeping its own domestic house from fracturing. Of the two, the latter is more subtle and likely more dangerous.

Former American diplomat George Kennan, who wrote much of the book on how to contain the old Soviet Union, threw out a warning that Canada, like every other nation, must abide by if the present world isn’t to fall into a new era of threat and darkness: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Communism isn’t the greatest threat to peace in this new Cold War, nor is it Putin. Rather, it is the embedded nationalism that threatens to turn peaceful and tolerant nations into narrow and irreconcilable ones.

Election 2015: Do What You’re Afraid to Do


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.

Election 2015: Fear and Elections


AUTHOR JEREMY ALDANA NOTES, “Insecurities have the ability to shape and mold our minds to live with things we otherwise wouldn’t accept, thus creating pain.” With the rise of rogue terrorist groups carrying out their actions around the world, we can easily get the sense that we are vulnerable, that all isn’t well with the world, and that, if we’re not careful, we could be placed in danger.

Modern elections are all about this propensity for fear and insecurity, and, to be sure, such threats carry weight in any campaign. Trouble emerges, however, when political parties, especially those with an authoritarian bent, opt to use election seasons to rouse up fears in the voters instead of hope and creativity. In such a state of perpetual insecurity, citizens lose perspective on other things they would normally worry about. With global insecurity once again an active element in political life, our own worries can easily eclipse other problems we can overcome.

What of our fear for our children’s future in areas of education and employment? Surely those count for something. How will we overcome our insecurity regarding climate change and the coming desolation? With poverty becoming more deeply entrenched every year, how will we deal with our collective worries about our declining social expectations?

In each of these areas politics has failed to come up with appropriate and timely responses, and so it does what it always does to distract us: scare us into overlooking such things in our distress over terrorism. Surely a capable government would assuage the fears of its people in all these areas.

It remains a foolish thing to believe that military action alone, or exclusive concentration on international trade, will be sufficient to keep us safe in all these dimensions. The number of Canadians involved in international peacekeeping presently numbers less than twenty. How can we fight war when we have undermined the resources for peace? The Harper government’s penchant to shut down embassies, abolish the Canadian International Development Agency (it is now part of the trade file), pull out of global institutions in which it was once an active member, the cutting back of diplomats, and black and white policies that only foster more conflict, means we have become victims of fear as opposed to proponents of peace.  They are signs that we have been in the process of gutting the very international diplomatic, development, gender, even military infrastructure, that were developed to deal with problems where they occurred and not wait for them to visit our shores. It is for these very reasons that Canada couldn’t win the slam dunk opportunity to be voted into the United Nations Security Council.

If a government were serious about protecting its people against foreign evils, it would place the bulk of its efforts on prevention, since such actions as peacekeeping, international development, gender equality programs, and, yes, trade deals that benefit the average person in difficult regions, have proven track records. The more we cut them out of our actions as a nation, the more that armed conflict will become inevitable.

That will also prove true domestically. Unaffordable post-secondary education, a growing gap between the rich and poor, the refusal to take climate change or our aboriginal situation seriously – these things, along with a growing list of others, will eventually lead to internal discontent in Canada. Perhaps worst of all, our dysfunctional political system shows no propensity for coming up with solutions to such dilemmas.

The chief character in the book (and subsequent movie), Divergent, watches everyone shrink back because of collective fear. “Fear isn’t supposed to shut you down; it wakes you up.” she tells the collective gathering.

It’s time we all woke up from our fearful nightmares and got to work on our collective dreams to build opportunities domestically and grow the peace globally. Franklin Roosevelt was right; we have nothing to fear but fear itself, especially the kind that renders us inactive in an age when democratic renewal is required more than ever. The opposite of fear is not courage, but peace, and it’s time we had a government that understood that distinction.

Politics Without Inspiration = Fear


“PEOPLE GO TO FAR GREATER LENGTHS to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire,” noted one of the characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and our current brand of politics is proving this – over and over again. Manipulative politics understands that, while humans are naturally moved by hope, they are far more motivated by what they are afraid of; it’s been in our DNA from the beginning. They play to it, believing that it’s easier to get people into the voting booth through what they’re afraid of than by what inspires them. And so, in an increasingly dangerous world, political success is deemed to be located in that sweet spot where terror intersects with citizenship.

This dynamic is increasingly playing out in the run-up to the next federal election later this year. The government has a responsibility to protect citizens, but not by driving them to fits of insecurity. And the opposition parties are right to talk about the threats to our privacy through wide-ranging anti-terror legislation, but must do a better job at detailing a more rigorous foreign policy that involves smart investment, international development, and diplomacy.

It used to be, especially in times of deep international insecurity, that politicians sought to enlist us to create a more hopeful world. They achieved this in different ways, but their authority and power to inspire us came from the belief that their citizens could yet move towards what Martin Luther King Jr. called the long arc “that bends towards justice.”

But politicians rarely speak like that anymore, in part because they have found it easier to drive the politics of fear than a democracy of hope. They have become managers of public life rather than visionaries for it. They have preferred contention over collaboration and division of people over dedication to principle. When people are fearful, even if only some of the time, they are easier to bait than when they are full of confidence concerning their future. And so we get played, and, like sheep fearful of a wolf on the perimeter, never realize that our greatest danger always comes from promoters of fear in our midst dressed as our defenders. It is a fantasy through which politicians trade leadership for a kind of invisible enforcement. In any discipline in a turbulent world, those with the darkest fears and highest ambitions often get to practice both in leadership.

Yet author, Marilyn Ferguson, reminds us all that we know that on the other side of every fear is freedom, if we would but work for it. Plato put it differently: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.”

Bruce Anderson, a pollster and panel member of CBC television’s popular “At Issue” panel, knows a thing or two about politics and is a gifted diviner of the national mood. In a recent Globe and Mail piece, he hearkened back to recent history, where politicians enjoyed success because they ran campaigns “about aspiration, about the future.” He goes on to add, “There’s a vacuum to be filled. It’s rare to hear leaders talk about dreams, except maybe how to avoid a nightmare.”

Andersen is right, as he is when he says our political conversations can feel more like “what do we need to do” than, “who do we want to be?” But we aren’t there at the moment, are we?

Vincent Van Gogh once boasted, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Will our leaders put aside their broadswords in favour of aspirations that unite a nation instead of dividing it? In the midst of a dangerous world, does the future not belong to those who wish to build it instead of merely protect it?

This imposing and complex planet now confronts us with the greatest challenges in a generation: terrorism, climate change, poverty, financial dysfunction.  It’s full of big lurking things and we require big inspirational leaders who once again remind us that fear itself is, in fact, our greatest enemy.  Fear doesn’t just come from the presence of danger, but the absence of inspiration and a sense of optimism.  Ultimately the task of any politician is to call us out from the collective of fear to that place where whatever we dream and believe we can actually achieve.


Living In A Post-Political World

We have lived as a species in times of kings and despots and decided we had experienced enough. The majority of us were still poor, died too young, had no real rights to speak of, and seemed powerless to change our fate. It had been like that for millennia, so why should we have accepted anything else? The point is that we didn’t. Despite our, at times, inertia and lack of direction, something had changed within us. We didn’t turn ourselves into political and economic reformers, but some did – and we listened to them. At times we were foolish and hearkened to the voice of others who were just as despotic as those they were fighting to replace. But then there were those authentic heralds of a new age, reminding us that there were other options – rebellion, negotiating, refusal to work, banding together in groups. Sometimes institutions like the church or the press would form a gathering point. Sometimes they helped; most times they defended the status quo because their own future required as a quiet acquiescence to present order of things.

Over time, groups of courage and fortitude arose struggling for everything from worker’s rights to a woman’s right to vote. For too long a time the average person continued to watch from the sidelines, reading the tea leaves and only joining such groups of protest when it became clear there was a chance of change in their present circumstances.

This is all now history. Our ancestors wore the t-shirt of political protest and eventually delivered to us a world of possibility far greater than anything they had experienced.

This is how progress has been made for thousands of years, but for some reason history doesn’t seem likely to repeat itself. Sure, there are voices out there calling for political renewal and a realignment of the economic forces that will eventually see our future perhaps hold out more promise than our present. There are more groups of action around the world than ever could have possibly be sustained in times of earlier transformation. By now we understand well enough that the inability of the Occupy movement to actually get beyond itself and display the maturity required to live out a credible alternative actually saw it collapse in on itself. But just like the Arab Spring, there was a time when it held out a certain appeal to us because we sensed that what such movements were struggling for were actually things we leaned towards ourselves.

But in the end, we didn’t sign on. We can blame Occupy for its immaturity, or the present financial system of globalization for its inevitability, but the reality is that is we who seemed unrecruitable. We wanted change but lacked the tensile strength to throw our own weight behind it. Why is that? Thousands of groups are struggling in Canada to build enough of a political movement to bring about the changes we seek, only to discover that most citizens themselves don’t appear interested in first having that change work within themselves.

What we have done instead is to turn away from the public space as any kind of guarantor for providing our children a better future. We throw up our hands as we come to realize that yesterday’s stimulus bailouts have become today’s service cuts. The very financial system that placed us on the precipice of disaster took billions from us, the taxpayers, and went right back to “business as usual,” with little change or reform from what was transpiring on the even of the global economic fallout. We watch all this transpire, know it, and yet we can’t be recruited to change it – to organize, develop more equitable policies, demand media start paying attention, and using the economic and democratic levers available to us.

I spent a good amount of time while in hospital this past two weeks speaking with numerous people – other patients, porters, orderlies, doctors, nurses, specialists – and while there was a clear sense of frustration at the present political orders, there was never one moment of expressed interest in getting involved and changing the system. Again, why?

Like some mouse transfixed before the weaving head of the snake, we are too preoccupied with our present circumstances to comprehend our future danger.  What we choose to do instead is just chuck politics altogether. Politicians themselves, just as transfixed an unable to change the world they helped create, take this is a sign they can do as they wish. Yet for all that free field for running, they can’t even engineer progress themselves.

I thought a lot about this while recovering from surgery. I know some very good people, from the Republic of South Sudan to activists from Old South London who have been burning the candle at both ends in an effort to get citizens more involved. It’s not working, at least to the degree that is required for change. But worse still, this need for public agitation doesn’t seem to be growing – and in that is our biggest struggle.

Political and social inertia isn’t just our greatest challenge, it seems to have become our greatest fear – just at the moment it is required most. Decline isn’t just about a lack of resources; it’s about the loss of meaning. Following days of reflection, it has been confirmed for me again that our greatest challenge is not to replace one bad political lot with another, but to actually get people to care enough to pull together in a democratic movement that will put blood back in our veins, steel in our spines, and a future back to our kids.

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