The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: inspiration

Election 2015: Underselling the Need for Change

articles_8CB8CE03-2CB3-42C0-B97C-93B8BB704D8EJohn Ibbitson is a writer for the Globe and Mail and in 2005 he sent a valentine to Canada. He placed it in and red-and-white envelope on which he wrote The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream. He sealed it with the Maple Leaf. It was basically an entreaty to look past the meagreness of politics and to think big. He also asked Canadians to think of themselves as a great people.

Obvious in Ibbitson’s message was the evidence that dysfunctional politics shouldn’t hold citizens back from what they were capable of. And yet, sadly, it does, over and over again. One of the interesting developments of this federal election is the growing fear of decline that’s more prevalent than we realized. It’s not merely about our current economic struggles but transcends into areas where Canadians used to feel a deeper sense of national pride. Somehow we feel we are underachieving when it comes to our political system and that leads us to believing we are underrepresented.

Endemic in all this has been the growing desire for something different in this election, some kind of change befitting our capabilities. Canadians have always felt that they had something important to add to the world, even if that wasn’t exactly true at times. If we occasionally went overboard with our belief of an important destiny, we always did so with a kind of humility that endeared us to others.

It’s tough to find that kind of confidence now. Instead we sense that our value to the world is at a low ebb, at the same time that we are forced to concur that our economic woes and other domestic responsibilities just don’t seem to be aligning in ways that assist us in overcoming our challenges.

Canadians have always been at their best when maintaining the belief that they can create the change they require when obstacles stand in our way – our history is full of such examples. Why is it, then, that we hear so little of this in the run-up to the federal election in October? How will politics fashion us so that we can play our important part in this relatively new century? Or would the better question be how can we as citizens fashion our politics so as to us assist us in reaching our potential?

Political campaigns likely use the word “change” more than any other because politicians and their handlers have to somehow instill in the electorate that they “get it” when it comes to a citizen’s desire for something better. And yet for all our wealth, we are being informed that we can’t afford our shared prosperity. For all our compassion, we are reminded that we can’t pay for solid welfare, a robust healthcare system, or regional equalization. With all our ingenuity and industriousness, we are reminded that we will never have the secure employment we had in previous decades. And with all the love we have for our grand open spaces, the rivers, mountains, and every sacred natural resource, we are again reminded that we can’t afford to protect such treasures through an effective plan for sustainability.

Despite our wealth, we are poor in spirit. With all of our compassion, we nevertheless don’t feel the love. With all our skills, we are feeling underused. And with some of the greatest natural riches on earth, we are left to feel as though we are poor stewards. This is the politics of underachievement and low expectations, even of ourselves.

We require change, but it keeps getting undersold to us in this campaign. We require policies and challenges worthy of who we are in our best moments, not merely in our safest ones. We want change – the political kind – that reminds us that Einstein’s adage still holds true:

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

It’s time for a campaign that doesn’t merely tempt us with small adjustments but changes us by challenging us.  This shouldn’t be a campaign of mere rhetoric but of revolutionary change. Somehow our politics isn’t giving it to us and we are failing to demand it. We still have three weeks left to turn that around.

Politics Without Inspiration = Fear

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“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.

 

Not What We Achieve, But How

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IT’S OFTEN TEMPTING TO THINK that the people who make a real difference in the world are the privileged, the connected, and the wealthy, but that’s merely because the media often seems fixated by such individuals. What frequently goes unnoticed are the countless individuals with an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit who are actually in the process of redefining leadership and contribution for a new generation. They are as different in personality as they are in skin colour or geographical locale. I have met enough of these women and men in the last few years that I’ve spotted a number of things they have in common, despite their other distinctions.

They are highly committed to making themselves better people, of refining those better angels of our nature we all possess to one degree or another. They might have begun with peddling an idea or sought to do things in a new way, but at some point they came to understand that how they accomplished important things was likely more vital than what they ultimately did. Their success was largely predicated on moving out into larger circles, and it was then that they learned that their personal biases, opinions, even prejudices, were getting in the way of the very thing they were attempting to create. They embraced that bigger world and grew more effective as leaders as a result.

Many of today’s effective leaders have learned that it’s just as important to shape the world rather than just build it. It’s an important distinction. To shape something is to woo, cajole, inspire, and ultimate persuade those things and people already around you to focus on aligning their efforts for a greater goal. I’ve seen this work over and over again in places like Africa, where resources are few but people resources are many. Those seeking to build often like to start from scratch. Some of our greatest leaders have worked that way, but often, in any field, it’s more important to align what already exists, and that’s takes leading people to work together. It’s never easy but often becomes more successful.

The most effective leaders are those who commit themselves to what gives their life personal meaning and a sense of direction. It’s not rocket science; people are most often highly attuned to what means the most to them. This is vital, since leading requires risk and it’s hard to get an individual to commit to something if it doesn’t inspire them. For certain leaders it is an experience they had that drives their conviction; for others it is an idea. But without the passion there will be little sacrifice. It’s tough to lead from the realm of the mundane.

Those capable of leading in new directions are most frequently characterized by vision and not just management. That’s useful in a world that seems ever-changing. How we manage things is vital to success, but when a new course must be charted it takes a visionary to see what is beyond the next obstacle, political change, or business plan. These two abilities – managing and vision – are essential and complementary, but the leaders who inspire the most are those who can see what others can’t.

Some view leadership as a personal pursuit, but the most effective leaders I have seen substitute lift for control. In other words, they develop the knack for bringing others along in their success. That’s not as easy as one might think, for it requires not only a sense of inclusion but humility as well – the ability to share the credit as opposed to monopolizing it, to admitting mistakes and forgiving others who sometimes fail. This is why small to medium-sized businesses are so essential to an economy, or why community groups from the grassroots are central to the life of any city or town – they started together and didn’t come in later to manage something that already existed. The secret is to keep that essence of teamwork intact once success comes along.

It’s time to stop bracketing leadership between the concept of notoriety or financial success. It’s becoming increasingly clear that merely viewing leadership as some great political, financial, arts or sports figure is to miss the point. That’s the standard way of looking at things and it’s not getting us very far. The essence of leadership is that it’s more adaptable in places where people share as opposed to where they control, manipulate, or blindly worship. And that is precisely where most people live. Effective leadership in such a setting has the greatest chance of touching the majority of us because it happens where we live. The secret is to speak to those who want to change their world and not those who already run it.

A City of Soul

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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.

Mandela’s Legacy and Politics

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WITH NELSON MANDELA’S PRESENCE NOW GONE from among us, questions continue to linger about his abiding influence.  Some of it is easy to figure.  As a person of moral stature, it is likely that no one from this present generation will stand as such a colossus of meaning and integrity.  As a family man, his life was mixed – as one would expect from someone so fully dedicated to a cause of freedom and having to spend almost 30 years in prison as a result of that commitment.  As a leader for human rights, his practices were varied, but the ultimate outcomes of his efforts are now beyond dispute.  And as a human being, he has ascended to that rarified realm occupied by people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But will his sojourn on earth have left any lingering effects on politics itself – its usefulness, calling, power, and ability to draw us together?  On that point things aren’t clear.

As a politician himself, it remains difficult to assess someone’s effectiveness who had been elevated to almost godlike status even before entering the rough and tumble world of politics.  His most effective campaigning was done from a prison cell on Robben Island and his influence only grew more magnified by his absence.  That’s not normal in a world where politicians have to put on their game face and attend as many public events as possible.  He had been a revolutionary who somehow ascended to the peak of power through peaceful means.  So, yes, that kind of life represents a challenge to our current practice of politics in almost every sense.  Despite all the eulogies, there remains something rather uncomfortable at watching a grouping of world leaders laud someone’s principles and actions that they have no plan of replicating themselves.  We understand that leaders should be there; but can they not do more than commemorate?

We all know there’s something not right in all this.  When I asked on social media yesterday whether Mandela’s example could result in a new kind of politics there was an immediate response.

  • Dave – “Nothing will rub off.  They are so engrained in their corruption and greed that they can’t even see the hypocrisy of their eulogizing.” (Facebook)
  • George – “First you’d have to create a new kind of human.” (Twitter)
  • Monika – “I have hope, but fear that if it could have, it would have while he was alive and standing up for the rights.  I feel change is left to the living.  We can draw on his legend, but only so much.” (Facebook)
  • Bill – “Being someone even close to the likes of Mandela requires a huge personal sacrifice.  Many of today’s politicians are ego driven, not driven by principles and therefore cannot make the personal sacrifices for the good of the people.” (Facebook)
  • Dave T. – “I don’t think our leaders are ignorant.  I don’t think they are greedy.  If anything, they have lost sight of the reasons why they are in their positions.  Their goals have become skewed.  They are always focused on the next election.  They follow a party line, even if they strongly disagree with some of it.” (Facebook)

So, from a citizen point of view, it doesn’t look good.  Part of Mandela’s greatness in our collective mind comes from the reality that so many others in politics fail to attempt such a standard, opting instead to tow the party line.  Nelson was a moral compass.  Of how many others in politics can we say such a thing?  There are some, but they grow increasingly rare as the political elite become just as lost as the citizenry.

Mandela’s life carries lessons for all of us, not just our leaders.  And in many ways we have all failed to carry the torch he bore for us, even if only for a brief time.  We can castigate our leaders all we want, and there is merit in such an action, but Mandela’s main energies were expended in convincing his fellow citizens that it was they who had to make the change.

Nelson Mandela once said he found a certain rectitude in Vaclav Havel’s observation: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”  The South African leader understood that if he failed at this point – citizens – then leadership would not matter.  So, he stirred them up to a higher calling and bore the scars of that calling in his own life – body and soul.  This is the kind of leadership we require – not just challenging citizens, but actually serving as examples of what cooperation and sacrifice could do.

As we begin this series on Mandela and politics, let’s not fall into the easy trap of blaming the elites.  It’s too late for that.  Their failure to secure such a destiny is daily reducing the public space, it’s true.  But our unwillingness to take them to task – to debate, to challenge, to run for office ourselves, and, yes, to vote – has paved the way for their underperformance.  There is no point in criticizing leaders who merely call to our self-serving instincts.  We are better than this and it’s time to show it.  The question is: will we become that change?

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