The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: individualism

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.


Liberalism – Climbing Down

Liberalism comes from the Latin liberalis, meaning “of freedom.”  By the time the Enlightenment propelled the concept of the rule of law over authoritarianism in government, the liberal philosophy began holding sway throughout most of Europe and the United States.  The 19th century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America.  Things spread at a much more rapid pace in the 20th century, when liberal democracies triumphed in two world wars, in the process surviving challenges from fascism, communism and, yes, conservatism.

It was a time of tough sledding for conservatives, for in reality they had benefited greatly from the liberal advance, especially its emphasis on the rights of property and the inherent worth of the individual. When liberal leaders stated that the most important right is the right to think for one’s self, conservatives could hardly disagree. And yet they fought it because the ground under their philosophical and political feet was being washed away in a tide of individualism and the conservatives fought hard to hold the line.

Talk to any Conservative MP in Ottawa today and they will fervently press home the truth that government should get out of the way of people living their lives.  The problem is that such a statement is actually been a liberal tenet for the last three centuries.  All this makes the workings of Stephen Harper so confounding and antithetical to conservatives, both economically and politically. The supposed Conservative party of freedom is actually run by an iron grip so tight that any kind of individualism isn’t tolerated.  In making himself the only fixed point, Harper has sucked the humanity right out of the party.  And, in the end, that’s why he can’t sell the product to a broad enough audience in Canada.

Why is it, then, that as the historic party of the individual and personal freedom, the Liberal Party of Canada hasn’t caught on either?  Some reasons are obvious: past political wrongs, leadership struggles, the aforementioned focus on broad policies over individual rights and powers.  But we’ve known that already and there must be something more.

Despite his occasional successes, the PM’s small and mean-spirited approach has hurt him.  Michael Ignatieff’s attempts to catch the collective imagination with his broad concepts and even broader inclusion has had troubled getting through.  In reality, Canadians were looking for neither.  As individuals, modern citizens desire a political process where they really matter, and large ideas or small mindedness just aren’t the ticket.

The Conservative dilemma is fairly obvious: the supposed party of the free individual conscience has become an iron glove.  And Liberals?  They continue to assume that, as Thomas Sowell has observed, “if you don’t believe in their particular solutions, then you don’t really care about the people that they claim to want to help.”  This baleful approach is a philosophical and increasingly political dead end. And it’s just patently untrue.  Canadians might have given up on government as a foreign aid dispenser, but civil society is verdant with millions of Canadians reaching out to their world.  That is just as true in anti-poverty sentiment or small business innovation as it is in environmental stewardship.

For whatever reason, the Liberal Party is having trouble connecting with that rich resource of individual dynamic and generosity.  To get there, it must climb down from its perch of policy-mindedness and involve itself once more at the community level in ways that are empowering to the party.  We need renewal, instead of always trying to offer it.

As Nick Clegg, co-leader of Britain’s new coalition has put it: “David Cameron and I both understand that this government’s unifying realization is that power must be dispersed more fairly – from the Whitehall centre to communities; into the hands of patients, parents and pupils in our public services.  In short, distributing power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government.”

That is a remarkable statement, and the fact we are hearing little like it among Liberals today is a clear sign of our dilemma and inability to find our message and connect.

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