The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: identity

Identity – Beyond Politics

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It was one of the most profound moments of my political life.  Two days following my election loss I took my son Ater for lunch.  When we entered the crowded food court at one of the local malls some people started clapping and soon most others joined in.  I was overwhelmed, leaning in closer to Ater.  It was all a little perplexing until one store owner took me aside, saying, “Know what that was about?  Until you got elected you were the food bank guy and we all love the food bank.  But when you became a politician you were a Liberal and right away people fell along party lines and saw you different because not all are of that persuasion.  Now that you’re done with politics you’re just one of us again and it’s good to have you back.”

I’m sure that wasn’t a universal sentiment but it was revealing to me at least, and subsequent events have proved its validity.  From the moment you enter the political arena, in one capacity or another, you are defined by that choice and it remains almost impossible to escape from even though you left politics behind.  In the end it’s about how you were branded.  Much of it is unfair, some of it valid, but most of it is just frustrating if you are an independent thinker.

Below you will see a video that was shot about 18 months into my political tenure in Ottawa.  The interview was with Catherine Clark, Joe Clark’s daughter, and she hosted a program called “Beyond Politics.”  She always attempted to discover what made politicians tick outside of their professional careers as politicians.  We hit it off right away, in part because her questions were insightful and I was willing to answer them honestly.  The video has been edited to a much shorter length, but in watching it you can see that I’m still wet behind the ears, attempting to come to grips with a political system that to me was alienating.  Maclean’s magazine had just released a column calling me “The Last Decent Man In Ottawa” and it has caused something of a stir.

As I endeavoured to say in the interview, I was a whole person when I got elected.  This was some six years ago, but I came into the House of Commons with a belief system, worked out over years of expanded living, with which I refused to compromise.  I was asked repeatedly to get into the regular partisan bashing so common in Ottawa these days and I just refused because I thought it was not only demeaning to Parliament but to me as well.

Nothing had prepared me to surrender my pride and self-regard sufficiently to accept those humiliations.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  My values and sense of self were already fully constructed, which was another way of saying that I was already a person who wasn’t going to take that way of life from anybody.  While I was in no position to force the House to accept things the way I thought they should be, I was still prepared to let them know and understand what my standards were.  I was a Liberal, yes, because our political system requires such a banner if one wishes to run and I was closer to being a Liberal than anything else.  But my life had taken on a spirit broader than mere policy constructs of any party.  I had been elected, not by the party but by Londoners, and their benefit was my main reason for being there.

My reaction to Parliament was one of caution and some disillusionment. Its response to me was decidedly confused.  By refusing to be branded I had immediately become an oddity.  Some didn’t like it, but over time an increasing number of MPs and parliamentary officials came to support my efforts for making the House a more respectful place.  But always – relentlessly – there were occasions every day to slip into the mainstream.  Sometimes I did without realizing it and the humiliation I felt within myself was palpable – I had failed my constituents, the House, and ultimately myself.  I learned from those moments.

For almost five years I struggled every day to keep from relinquishing who I really was to political forces that only desired that I serve them.  But life had already taught me some of these lessons concerning being true to one’s self, my spouse and children, my community, and even my God.

Most believe they have the strength to endure such attempts at conformity, but for the person who wishes to be recognized, applauded, or advanced, the temptations are almost overwhelming.  And the political system knows how to use that hunger for its own benefit.  All that is required is that you leave behind a little bit of who you are.  For me that was a disturbing possibility.  Watch the video below and you’ll see a man struggling to comprehend his place in an always-compromising world.  I think it’s instructive for all office seekers because the feelings were so raw.  But I had a life beyond politics before I was elected; I also have one following on the heels of political career.  Yet the key point here is I possessed such a life while I was in the political arena, and that is what saved me.

Identity – Tartans, Kilts and Zombies

Zombies

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” wrote Marcel Proust, and he was correct.

We often see this kind of phenomenon in how many pressing for political reform embrace democracy’s past.  They imagine a simpler time, a kind of small community functionality, where citizens got together at a local assembly hall and determined their future – a Norman Rockwell existence.  This was indeed reality in many rural communities, but in larger cities and in federal jurisdictions decisions were pursued and confirmed at the rarified levels of political backrooms.  By and large, citizens were pawns in an elitist chess match that were merely permitted their own say every few years when there was an election.

There never was such a simple time in the majority of our politics, yet we continue to hear of a more activist era – a place to which we must return if we are to find renewal.  Well, that’s just not on because it never was.

Reimagining history provides us comfort during troubling times.  I was raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and there continues to be this enduring rural legend that Scottish clans each had their own tartans way back in the mists of Scottish history, say during the turbulent days of the 13th century exemplified in the movie Braveheart.  The trouble is that such tartan insignia didn’t come into play until some 500 years later, when Queen Victoria’s popularity caused Scottish cloth manufacturers to design and market numerous tartans to expand their markets.  The same is true of the famous Scottish kilts, which remain a more modern invention.  Yet many take the values represented by such things as tartans, cloth and kilts and push them deeper into the past in the search for more enduring meaning.

Often our collective identities suffer from a similar malady.  When England adopted its national anthem in the mid-18th century there was a sudden rush from other countries to produce their own.  Desiring to capture their own uniqueness in their anthems, many participating countries came up with their own versions.  One difficulty was that they used the melody from England’s theme, despite using different lyrics.  Denmark and Holland were the first to adopt the British melody.  To this day, Switzerland still sings its Ruft die, mein Vaterland to the strains of God Save the King.  Until 1931, when the American Congress adopted a new anthem, US citizens sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee to the same melody.

All this history is just another way of reminding us that the path to where we are at present often isn’t what we presumed.  One of the key reasons why nostalgia becomes so prominent in difficult times is because we need to reach back to something that can infuse our spirits with a sense of meaning, of belonging.  Sometimes there is no greater sorrow than reflecting back on what we believed were happier times when we are so troubled.

Ironically this is where the origin of the word “nostalgia” comes from.  The Greek word for “return” is nostos, while algos means “suffering.”  Nostalgia – nostos algos –  is the suffering caused by the wish to return to a past when we can’t.  In our yearning for better times we often embellish the historical record to make it fit our longings.

Along with the penchant for sentimentalizing the past comes the urge to traumatize the present.  Perhaps this explains our current hankering for anything to do with zombies – they are everywhere.  Clemson University professor Sarah Lauro believes that this is only natural and forms part of a historical pattern that reflects society’s dissatisfaction with the troubled economic and social times we live in.  She’s likely right, when you consider the zombie, mummy and alien movies and books that flourished during the Depression and Second World War.

These have been prolonged and difficult days for most citizens around the world, Canadians included.  We continue to hear calls to “return” to our more democratic past, along with the doom and gloom that comes in dealing with the economic and political failures of the present.  Again and again we permit ourselves to be defined by a public mood that looks kindly on the nostalgic past and deprecatingly on the present.  It’s hard to imagine a future when we remain bracketed by these two preoccupations.  Yet imagine we must, for our future depends on it.  “Imagination is the voice of daring,” someone once said and it is now time to rise to our challenges.

Democracy was never really our’s as citizens to manage, but more of an estate granted to us by overseers.  Those guardians now appear defenseless against those obstacles standing between progress and ourselves.  Alas, the democratic state has fallen into the hands for whom it was initially designed – citizens.  We clamor for it, but are we ready for its rigors, its expectations?  It’s time we ceased permitting ourselves to be defined by tartans and zombies and concentrated instead on the task at hand of rebuilding democracy from the ground up?  But are we up for it?  For if we aren’t, we will forever be identified by nostalgia and fear.

Identity – You and We

reflectingCommunities have their own kind of DNA.  They came together over years of development, experience, leadership, tough times, migration, ups and down of economies, artistic expression, politics and citizenship, to name but a few.  Whether we are born into the place where we now live or moved into it at some point, it has special characteristics that existed long before we came along.  Often, despite its drawbacks, we choose where we live because we like what history has made of our habitat.

A person can spend a lifetime in such environs and add little to their overall community.  The needs of survival mean they must take from it; but if they wish their community to progress they must give back.  This is the essence of citizenship – dovetailing our individual identities into the narrative that is the place where we live.  If enough of us get involved, it is refined; if we grow lax, it declines.

This is now a vital time in many of our communities. Modern global economic pressures have aggressively challenged our cities and towns to such an extent that what they were, and are, are now in danger of being lost in our rush to economic efficiencies. We often most recognize our affections when we come closing to losing what we care for.

This past Valentine’s Day I wrote a post on Romancing the Community.  I wrote it because, after living in London, Ontario, for 40 years now I have come to realize that I truly do love it.  Did I not care for it before?  The only answer to that is: not as much as I do now.  It has taken me time to realize that this devotion is becoming pronounced through the knowledge that some of my community’s DNA is in danger of being lost.  I’m not afraid of progress, but I refuse to embrace it if what is involved is the denial of what has been great in my city and helped to make me who I am.

In a very real sense the true issue of citizenship and community is all about identity.  I worry that some of the best parts of my city are fading away in what is a kind of collective amnesia.  Like others, I watch in concern as politics makes enemies where they didn’t exist before, or when it severs the tie between politics and the public/private harmony.

Then again, I have to come to terms with the reality that it’s not all about where I live; it’s about me, too.  We have principles, beliefs, affections, and, yes, hope, but over time we can lose our ardour for them just through living in a time of diminished returns. It can become easier to just say “forget it; nothing changes, so I’m just going to concentrate on my own life.”  Suddenly we are in the worst of all possible worlds – personal and collective disillusionment and idleness. In such a state, community and personal identities run the danger of being lost.

When we are young, we experiment with so many things in some grand effort at finding our identity.  It’s like trying on different masks repeatedly.  Maturity eventually arrives when we discover that we are actually the person who doesn’t wear a mask.  Identity becomes clear in such moments of illumination.  We learn that, like our respective communities, we have a center, something that grounds us – a place for ourselves, and others.

Perhaps the greatest benefit is discovering who we are is the sense of purpose that comes along with it.  We begin to fight for what we have discovered, or, in my case I opted to fight harder for something I worried was being lost.  We awake to the discovery that countless forces are arrayed against our identity, seeking to pull us away from we have learned about ourselves.  We get drawn off by the allurements of money, things, BLING, just as easily as we do with pain, regret, a sense of loss, or disillusionment.  How we personally deal with the threat of lost identity will ultimately determine whether our communities lose theirs.

I recall reading of the Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren – a fervent pacifist and dedicated humanitarian.  The invasion of his town by German soldiers in World War One had a profound effect on him that caught him totally by surprise.  He awoke to discover that his heart was filled with hatred.  Looking in the mirror one morning he came to the realization of how he had changed and how he was bringing a negative influence to the town that once was the object of his affection.  He sat down and wrote wearily:

Since it seems that in this state of hatred my conscience becomes diminished, I dedicate these pages, with emotion, to the man I used to be.

Are we diminished?  Are we the best we can be?  Again, this is the core of citizenship.  Innately we care for others and seek their improvement along with our own.  To lose that impulse is to lose ourselves and our communities in the process.  Now more than ever we have to know why we matter. We must ensure we are not the victims of someone else’s design.  To be a citizen is to fight the eternal struggle of rescuing ourselves from the seemingly mindless flow of events. The moment we separate our own identity from that of the community is the moment when both are lost.

 

Who Are You?

Identity-TheftWho are you? Seriously. For that matter, who are we?

Oscar Wilde used to wonder if people really knew themselves, what was truly unique about their personalities. At one point he said: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

I used to think that statement a little bleak, until a couple of weeks ago, when, in a discussion with some engaged citizens, I asked who they really were and received a kind of collective blank stare. I pressed and eventually there emerged a list of the books they liked, who their parents were, where they went to school, and what kind of politics they supported. It was clear by the time it was all over that no one was happy with their answer simply because they hadn’t put a lot of time into it. Moreover, the subject virtually never arose when they were with others.

It got me to thinking that perhaps this is one of the key reasons why citizens experience so much trouble pulling themselves together to bring about the very changes they seek – unsure who they are individually effectively negates their ability to find the kind of common ground that requires a form of collective sacrifice.

I spent my first year in Parliament on the Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee and almost the entire time was taken up with the subject of “Identity Theft.” In other words, each of us had something that somebody could take. But it was all technical stuff – driver’s license, credit card numbers, hospital records, social security number. There’s big money in stealing such things I discovered, and even more money spent in preventing such pilfering.  All of it was about our legal status, not our personal ideals, foibles, sense of humour, or capacity for compassion. It didn’t take me long to realize that actually this was how Ottawa viewed Canadians. They were legal entities that had to be governed by laws. Increasingly their main attraction was that they were voters; everything else kind of paled in comparison.

I learned that Canada’s original peoples were observed only through the lens of treaties and financial arrangements. In such a perspective, the hundreds of aboriginal women gone missing and presumed dead barely rippled the water of parliamentary attention. Climate change was about carbon taxes, cost-sharing with provinces, the economy of the tar sands and pipeline deals. It all left little room for children with a more dangerous future, the extinction of species, or the sustainability of communities. Realistically, government was about winning aggressively, not governing judiciously. People were ultimately voters who could also donate money to keep the machinery going.

Those visiting Ottawa consistently remark about how inspiring the Parliamentary institutions were – House of Commons, Supreme Court, the War Memorial – but how alienated they felt by politics itself. I literally witnessed one teacher attempting to cover the ears of a young student watching as Question Period descended into a kind of verbal madness.

Democracy, citizenship, and government only matter as people know what they’re about – what they believe in, are willing to sacrifice for, and how they come together with other citizens and communities to forge a way into the future. The less we know who we truly are, the more those governing us hand us empty prattles instead of effective policy. We are tolerated more than taught, enticed more than enlightened, excused more than exalted.

Ultimately democracy isn’t about the country but its people. The capacity of a population should be the fundamental goal of all things legislative and debated. Our political system is rightfully predicated upon the belief that we make the choices through a rather intricate system of self-government. For that to be effective we must know what we’re about, who we are, and what we want. It seems to me we’re not so sure of such things at present. We merely know that we don’t like the representative politics of the day.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will,” Bronte quotes Jane Eyre. In our modern world that is an extremely rare accomplishment. We are informed what to buy, diminished by numerous political parties, provided limited options on how to better our communities, and work endless hours for a capitalistic machine we can’t comprehend. We like to believe we are free to decide for ourselves but often discover that the options available to us are, in fact, limited to a few agreed upon choices.

And so we become isolated from our communities because of the very lack of creativity, imagination and gathering. Our cities seem to grow along a kind of pre-determined path – only not determined by us.  It all leaves us kind of lost, looking a lot like others around us, and feeling like pawns played in a game by someone else.

At the heart of human experience lies this eternal desire to define whom we are, instead of having someone else do it. As citizens we have the legal status for such a pursuit; it is the tools that we are missing.

For the next while we shall study “identity” and how we determine it for the betterment of our communities and our children. Citizens are only as effective as they act in direct connection to whom they are – their identity. In all too many cases we have permitted someone else to steal it.

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