The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hope

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.

Sleeves Rolled Up

IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS ANY INDICATION, 2016’s end couldn’t come quickly enough. Somehow the last 12 months have left millions with the compelling urge to turn the page and get on with something better.

It’s not difficult to understand why this angst seems so universal. It has been a year of significant challenges and disappointments. Political turbulence, economic stagnation, the frustrations of the middle class, environmental decline — this list could just go on and on with issues that are striking insecurity into the hearts of citizens and leaders alike.

A clue to what was happening occurred partway through 2016 when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks claimed, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” It’s that (at times, toxic) urgency that has added fuel to numerous conflagrations around the globe and prompted people to look back at 2016 as a dark period, despite its numerous bright moments.

Perhaps no other year in recent memory has carried such foreboding undercurrents as what we have just endured. Many wonder whether civilization itself has pivoted towards its own demise in the past 12 months, while others fret that the collective belief in democracy, equality, God, fairness and progress might have been misplaced. The passing of numerous celebrity icons in past months has only added to the sense of gloom.

If there was ever a time for a universal sense of hope to make an appearance, now, on the eve of 2017, would be a good time — or as Alfred Lloyd Tennyson put it, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘it will be happier.’”

Yet if hope is to accomplish its difficult task it will require the hands of the many and not just the manipulations of the few.

“Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.”

Hope is not just an aspiration, but a driving force of nature that takes on the world with a sense of determination, daring to take another chance at getting things right. It’s no mere pious virtue that lures people into its aura in peace and solitude, but a compelling urge to remove those obstacles that keep us from a brighter future. It is the pitting of ourselves against the worst aspects of humanity and believing that we’ll prevail. Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.

We have come to one of those turning points in history that will define our future for the better or the worse. Yet there is one key difference — the rise of populism. Across the world, the voices of common people are railing against the power of those of have enjoyed the privileges of their wealth and excess at the expense of others.

But populism can easily become a force for destruction that permits its individual anger to overpower the need for mutual respect and collective collaboration. The rise of the common person is now a global reality, but it must demonstrate the very willingness to understand and provide for others and the planet that our global leaders have so far failed to bring

It is now up to citizens, perhaps more than it has ever been, and we are making that reality increasingly clear to those that govern us. But we must learn to cooperate with our elected representatives in a fashion that diffuses power in equitable fashion. This past year, while giving rise to such a concept, has so far pitted citizens more against each other than fighting the obstacles that threaten our very survival. This is what we must turn around in 2017.

This year ends with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series proved iconic to an entire generation. Though her role in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One lasts less than a minute, her utterance of the last word in the movie serves to remind us that it’s only after endless sacrifice and a sense of collective purpose that such a word could be uttered with any form of confidence.

“Hope,” she says before the credits roll — a fitting conclusion near the end of a troubling year and prior to another 12 months of opportunity to get things right.

Christmas Prep – Hope

SO MUCH OF THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY SEASON is predicated on things from other eras. Gifts, trees, carols, decorations, sentimentalizing snow, turkey, Santa, Bethlehem, trying to fill the kids with a sense of wonder, religious services, and community celebrations with lights – none of these were created by us but by our ancestors and we personalize them each December to fit our own holiday circumstances. In all of this the past can give meaning to the present.

Yet occasionally it becomes instead a mindless following of cultural expectations, or as Todd Stocker would write of it, “Sometimes we get so enamoured with the tradition of something that we forget the intent of it.” We can modernize the Christmas season all we want, but with each passing year it loses something of the past, of the meanings that such an important occasion brought to mind for our parents and grandparents. To those folks, surviving a Depression and a couple of world wars, provided them with an acute insight into why Christmas itself was vital for reasons far greater than mere tradition. In our consumer rush and modern penchant for casting off what we sometimes regard as illusions of the past, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, ending up with cultural habits often devoid of meaning. This is what author Lars Svendsen meant in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, when he noted that, “Traditions have been replaced by lifestyles.”

Perhaps there’s only one thing that can keep us from losing the essence of the Christmas meaning – the future. For perhaps billions of people the world has become a more dangerous place, at least in their thoughts. So many things seem to be happening across the globe at the same time that it often seems unlikely that our leaders are really in control of the change. The list can, at times, seem endless: poverty, climate change, violence, terrorism, democratic decline, human migration, the loss of long-term meaning, gender inequality. Those who worry about such things can merely turn maudlin and look longingly at the past. Nor can they turn a blind eye to it all and seek to enjoy the present. What they need is to believe in the hope that only the future can bring, or as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard poignantly put it to his generation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In other words, both the past and the future matter to our present way of life; without either we turn into a humanity with no lights of wisdom in our heads and no path for which to follow.

It’s likely that herein lies the reason we make kids so much the centre of our Christmas observances – they are the future, and by focusing on them we reinvigorate our own faith in a better tomorrow. Without them there is no one to pass the torch to. Which makes it all the more important that we gift them with things of value on not just commerce. Somehow they have to take the world that we presently have, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and make it better. For that they will require tools that are priceless and can’t be bought in a store (as the Grinch learned) – love, faith in each other, respect, decency, adaptability, forgiveness, healing, and, yes, the belief in those transcendent things that outlast us all. If we can provide our children such essentials, then it won’t matter what’s under the tree.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The first Christmas story was infused by the sense that something different had to take place, something seismic enough that it could set humanity on a different course. The old path was no longer sufficient for a more enlightened future. Yet the answer wasn’t to throw out tradition, but to uncover the essence of it – the values that had survived for millennia and were still required to give humanity a fighting chance.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
And that’s what we require now: a spot on the ticket, the knowledge that we can turn our world towards better instincts and our hearts towards the better angels of our natures. To give such treasures to our children and grandchildren is to pay our own downpayment on our hope for the future. Such things can’t be bought because they are priceless. But they can be lived and in that truth is the essence of the Christmas message.

A Strange Case of Hope

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IT SEEMS COUNTERINTUITIVE, BUT IT’S REAL.   Despite the overriding sense that violence and bloodshed have extended their grip of fear globally, statistics reveal we have never been closer to establishing international peace. Despite the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the terror that is ISIS, and the bloodshed emanating from Syria, the reality is that they stagger us because in fact they are becoming more rare.

Go deeper into the statistics and we discover that tragedies like murder, domestic violence, torture, and capital punishment have been steadily on the decline. Just ask Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, and best-selling author. He wrote a book in 2011, titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he made the following staggering statement: “The decline in violence in the world is the most significant and least appreciated in the history of our species.” This is nothing to sneeze at and provides a needed perspective as we look back over the past year, which Pinker maintains has been one of the most relatively peaceful since the end of the Second World War.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the long downward trend is steadily moving forward. Our problem is, of course, that it doesn’t appear that way. Why is that? Pinker, among others, thinks that the constant follow-up of media following violent events gets us into a mode where we think that world is in trouble. That could very well be on issues like climate change or financial inequality, but violence doesn’t fit into that model.

“Rampage shootings generate a huge amount of media publicity but account for a relatively tiny number of deaths – that’s why they carry them out. Killing a few innocent people at once is the only surefire way to attract publicity for yourself or your cause … The news is a systemically misleading way to understand the world.”

He uses European history as an example, reminding readers that more people were killed by Marxist, nationalist, and secessionist groups in the 1970s and 1980s than have been killed by Islamic militants in the 2000s and 2010s.

There is sense in the research Pinker has compiled, especially after considering war itself as an example. For 500 years, Western European countries started, on average, two new wars a year, but following World War Two there have been none. Most of the conflicts going on around the world in the present age are civil wars and even these are slowly in decline. And we need to remember that World War Two resulted in some 60 million refugees, as opposed to the roughly one million Europe is facing at the moment.

As global citizens we have been through a tough year – terrorism, climate disaster, refugees, economic turbulence, and political decline – and each of these issues are of vital importance. But as we move into 2016 we must take hope where it is offered, and when it comes to human violence, history seems to be on the side of progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it.  This is an important message for the coming year, for nothing troubles us as much as senseless slaughter. But such travesties are in decline. Naturally each new attack threatens our sense of security and vulnerability, but if this coming year continues the trend, we are working our way towards a less violent future, and have been for decades.

For some perspective, take some time to view the following video and the declining death rate in the modern era. Some of the numbers are staggering, while others are hopeful. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” songwriter Leonard Cohen states, and it is true in this case. Perspective is important to progress and 2016 could well see us travelling in the same direction.  We must refrain from overtly fretting over the issues that aren’t as damaging as we think while overlooking those challenges, like climate change, that are, in reality, far more foreboding than we realize.  2016 could prove a pivotal year if we can better discern between the two.

 

Christmas Opposite

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YOU WON’T BE SURPRISED TO HEAR THAT the number of those who are homeless has increased in recent years. What does irk us somewhat is the discovery that the numbers of those homeless in the upper 1% is also going up. It’s not that they don’t have homes – the average number is three for this group, and that doesn’t include holiday homes or yachts – it’s that they increasingly avoid settling down anywhere. They often put more importance on their means of transport to all these various places than they do in the temporary habitats they reside in.

Those in the upper crust have always been characterized by their possession of opulent homes. But in previous times, at least, they actually lived and worked out their lives in their communities. Where the rich once boasted of their mansions, they now boast of their constant movement. The meteoric rise of yachts and private aircraft supports this trend. The idea of the historic form of civic membership is quickly waning in this group.

Such a development is also mirrored in various aspects of the corporate sector. For a significant part of our history, where we worked often formed a kind of status. The larger a contribution a company made to its community, the more prestigious it was to work there and be highly regarded by the community.

But that’s all changing now, as companies continue to move their headquarters and plants quickly and adroitly to other locations. As author Rosabeth Kanter put it: “For cities as well as employees, this constant shuffling of company identities is confusing and its effects profound.” Kanter goes on to say that the damage to the social and economic fabric in a community when a business departs is like “tearing holes” in community identity and confidence.

And then there is growing disenchantment within what we might term the “anxious” class. At best, it’s about not knowing if there will be a job next month; at worst it’s about not knowing where the next meal will come from. And eventually they become labelled by the very economy they can’t bend to their circumstances. They become known primarily by their relationship to the economy. Their abilities, faithfulness, intelligence, dedication to community, or their responsibility to their neighbours are totally passed over in favour of how they compare to the wealthy. They might be pulling off the minor miracle of holding down two or three minimum wage jobs, but the sum total of all their efforts might mean they still can’t afford a house. Despite their uniqueness, they find themselves coupled with the poor, or lesser off, or marginalized.

For such people Christmas loses much of its magic. In a world where the rich, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or the devilish Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, had to work out their lives and reputations in a settled community, there were always possibilities for the rich to turn their lives around, or for the poor to achieve some sense of relief and hope. But what if the rich aren’t there, but instead on a holiday isle somewhere or in their Asian headquarters for a few weeks? How do the upper and lower segments of community meet in a fashion that makes renewal possible in such a situation?

Author Lee Rainwater, in his book What Money Buys, outlines the kind of life those struggling to make ends meet inevitably face:

They are engaged in a constant implicit assessment of their likely chances for having the access and resources necessary to maintain a sense of valid identity. People’s anticipation of their future chances, particularly the young, seems to affect quite markedly the way they relate to others and the way they make use of the resources available to them. By reducing their chance, chronic poverty blocks economic and political participation, and consequently weakens the capacity to develop confidence and sustain enduring relationships.

And so there we have it. Lacking the identity and resolve that an economic sense of stability would bring them, these “anxious” citizens become vulnerable to a kind of financial domination that generations believed they had escaped following the Second World War. Though rich in spirit and potential, they are necessarily allied to their lack of income and consigned to a kind of “dead space” of emotional drudgery.

This is the very stuff that Christmas in any community is meant to overcome. But when we feel helpless to change the economy or to even locate those needed to be held accountable for the growing gap between rich and poor, the holiday season becomes a dull ache, and incessant reminder that Christmas miracles must be meant for someone else.

Recalling his own tenure in poverty, author Charles Bukowski noted, “What a weary time those years were – to have the desire and the need to live and be respected but not the ability.” This is the opposite of what Christmas is supposed to be – the belief that goodness would outweigh greed, peace could overcome economic oppression, and that our employment could be an extension of the talented people we are. There is no Santa Claus on this one; we must dedicate ourselves to creating the conditions of Christmas in our own communities.

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