The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: knowledge

Food: A World of Contradiction

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FOOD IS EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, and not just physically. Talk of it runs the gamut from food trucks to food banks, the price of food to the massive amounts of it thrown into landfills. When James Beard noted years ago that, “food is our common ground, a universal experience,” I wonder if he knew just how true that would become, given all the issues around food these days, from its abundance to its scarcity, its price to its source.

In reality, food is an entire world, a universe even. A vast as the human experience, it also reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our values. We see it of such importance that we enforce access to it at the same time as we permit others to face starvation for lack of it. Even the United Nations Charter of Human Rights mentions food, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization was its very first department.

And like much else in the world, the subject of food is broken into silos that often exist separately and frequently contradict one another. There are organizations that monitor the quality of food who are nevertheless behind the times in labeling what is truly nutritious or harmful. Food banks that were to be temporary responses to times of recession became institutional even in the good economic times. Cities surrounded by quality foodstuffs, like London, Ontario, which suffers from a lack of locally grown products in the city, watch in frustration as most of the food grown in the area heads out on trucks to other parts of the province, nation, or even the world. Countries in which food production is a major advantage nevertheless watch as the price of products continues to escalate in alarming measures.

As long as its condition remains in such a state, the universe of food will remain as divided as the physical world itself. As each sector of food production, research, legislation, manufacturing, selling, consumption, and waste follow their own course, the domain of food, so essential to a better world, will remain divisive.

Yet, in recent years, we are hearing more about organizations and entire communities reaching out past such a divided model and seeking to link aspects of food life to real-life human conditions. Fair Trade products seek to unite quality items with those growing the ingredients. There are local food markets seeking to link their efforts with effective wages for those growing the products. Citizen movements are pressing governments to undertake comprehensive efforts to properly label and source products that end up in the food system. Activists seek to utilize available urban lands, including rooftops, to expand the local food system in ways that make availability more healthy and charitable. Some consumers groups seek to reward farmers for environmental services and not just food products themselves.

Yet in the midst of all this global movement for reform, two billion people reside on the edge of starvation, obesity is escalating a serious health risk, and chemicals in food supplies continue to be inserted despite concern over long-term health implications. Governments at all levels have chosen to largely avoid responsibility by leaving food issues to the challenging work of charities and non-profit institutions. We have a long way to go,

Citizens have spent the last few decades checking out of politics because of its lack of responsiveness to their values and challenges. But in the area of food, individuals, groups, and even some companies are seeing some concrete results in improving the food environment. Why? Because we all require food to live. We know it, and we increasingly, for the sake of our children and our own health, apply our energies and dollars to making the entire food cycle more efficient, more readily available, and more sensitive to the buying capacities of shoppers.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is a responsibility, not just for ourselves but for a fairer world. As author Katie McGarry put it: “Food shouldn’t be half-bad. It should be all good.” Good for everybody, including the planet.

Depth Time

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IT WAS THE USUAL KIND OF PARTY WHERE FRIENDS gather together for a BBQ and some good times. The host found me in her living room scanning the various books in her shelves beside the fireplace. There were the familiar titles of history, philosophy, economics, and politics. When I complemented her on her selection, she remarked, “They are actually from my university days and I treasure them. But the truth is I haven’t read them since. There’s just no time.”

It’s a common tale – one heard more frequently as life piles on responsibility after responsibility.

There was a time when the idea of thinking deeply was a worthy pursuit. It equated the reader (or writer) with life’s more profound treasures and mysteries and supposedly enriched the life with things of historic importance. But in a world of 140 characters, 24/7 news coverage, extensive work hours, taking kids to their games, and assuming numerous domestic duties, pursuing the “deep” option has become something of an art.

David Brooks, the well-known New York Times columnist, recently lamented that modern life, with its emphasis on materialism and professional achievements, has left us little time for cultivating the kinds of qualities that will actually be discussed at our funerals – lover of life, great sense of humour, dedicated to family, honesty, generous, a belief in integrity, to name a few. In acknowledging the pressures of living, he nevertheless concluded that acquiring a character of depth was still possible if people chose to pursue it. “Those things that we admire most – honesty, humility, self-control, courage and compassion – those things take some time and they accumulate slowly,” he writes.

To assist us in such a pursuit, Brooks outlined five qualities that should be enhanced in our personal, professional, and public lives that can lead to depth of character.

  1. Love – Instead of some kind of transient affection or something just based on need, “we should develop love for a cause, transformational love for another person, even God. It ‘de-centers’ the self.” In profound fashion, he goes on to conclude that, “a person in love finds the centre of himself is outside himself.” That ability to get beyond ourselves can take us into deeper waters of meaning and possibility.
  2. Suffering – Brooks tells of our penchant for looking forward and our desire for happiness, which is endemic and a natural part of human nature. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” The truth in that last statement is so obvious as to be irrefutable. The great writings, poems, musical and art pieces, all reflect this reality.
  3. Internal Struggle – “Those who have depth are aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Those things that are often the most valued in life take the hardest work to acquire or achieve. Often our greatest enemy to being successful is in ourselves.
  4. Obedience – we live in a world that constantly beckons us to look inward, deep inside ourselves, for our passion. But those people we most admire, those that have made a difference in their world, have responded to callings of causes outside of themselves. And they obey that cause because it speaks to the essence of their being and their desire to matter in this short life.
  5. Acceptance – Brooks talks about “belonging to some sort of human transcendent community.” There are those people who live for others, for causes outside of themselves, and the very arc of their lives is a thing of great meaning and inspiration to us. Then we find, as we begin focusing on the great needs of humanity, or the secrets of character, that we are part of group of people who better the world every day through their dedicated efforts. To feel that sense of belonging is vital to our own personal fulfillment.

Our choices determine our character – it has ever been so. The deeper, the more arduous the choice, the more our inner selves develop a nobility that calls to the most meaningful things of life. The frantic pace of our modern era often makes such a narrative difficult to achieve. But when our life is over, for most of us at least, we will want to be remembered for the riches of our character than the amount of money in our account; for our capacity to love greatly as opposed to just being loved; for our belief in a better world and not merely the one we were offered; and for our decision to throw our weight behind the great cause of humanity as opposed to merely living on its hectic terms.

 

 

Smart Sovereignty

 

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THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS PEERS STOOD ON THE VERGE of an entirely new historical era, but the ultimate question remained: were citizens up to the challenge of enhancing the democratic ideal and of intelligently voting for representatives who best housed their values?

Over 200 years later, we look back on those turbulent times and wonder what the big deal was. But that’s only because we have the benefit of hindsight. All that the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution saw when they looked back was a combination of wealth owners and a political elite that basically decided for everyone else how society would function. To decide upon a marked departure and simply “trust the people” approach was a gamble of truly historic proportions and there were no guarantees of success.

Yet Jefferson counted on one key ingredient if success was to be attained: knowledge. Here’s the way he put it at the time:

“If we leave the people in ignorance, old customs will return, and kings, priests and nobles will rise up among us. The diffusion of knowledge among the people is the only hope of success. Education alone will preserve the sovereignty of the people. Without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny.”

Odd as it might seem to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t a given way back then. It was one of the reasons Jefferson himself felt so strongly about the need for public school systems at all levels. He believed that without watchful and knowledgeable citizens those in power would stray and government would no longer represent the will of the people. Worse, they wouldn’t even understand their people. He believed, and time would bear this out, that because people who held office were human, that they would be subject to influences that could tempt them away from the public good and towards special interests. He reserved his greatest concern for rabid partisanship, where people put their minds on hold for the sake of selective interest. Informed citizens guard against such opportunism.

Democracy fundamentally requires an informed electorate. The alternative to that is civic decay, which is what so many jurisdictions are experiencing at present. The Achilles Heel of democracy has always been that it doesn’t force citizens to participate. Worse still, it doesn’t force them to understand the very issues that directly affect their own status.

Much has been written lately, especially on social media, that by exercising the right not to vote people are actually making a choice. Fair enough for the short-term. The long-term consequences, however, will be the dumbing down of democracy itself and the hijacking of communities by those who managed to cobble together enough support to get elected when the majority of citizens refused to participate. In doing so, we begin the inevitable walk back to the Stone Age.

As historian, Daniel Boorstin, once put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Exactly. The tendency to land on the support of a certain political party can be a galvanizing moment; it can also lead to the shutting out of our minds of other ideas necessary for good governance. This is where partisanship is its most dangerous. When handled well, it can provide a personal sense of shared conviction, a welcome, and an opportunity to fight for what one believes in. Handled poorly, there is the inevitable exclusiveness, the shutting out of others, and the demonizing of those that disagree. Sadly, at present, there is much more of the latter than the former.

To be meaningful, politics must call out our convictions. But to be effective it must draw us out of ourselves, beyond the present, and set our minds and intellect to a wider setting that extends farther than our private circumstances and personal gratification. Our communities are worth the best our minds have to offer, but to achieve that we must resist the lure of simple thinking and be called out to the realm of greater humanity.

The sovereignty of the electorate – citizens – over their rulers lies at the very core of the democratic experiment. To waste it on the need to always be right or to vilify others merely sells out that sovereignty to the professional manipulators in the political class. Our community requires more than that and we must be smart enough to realize it.

Citizenship – “Information vs. Knowledge”

New figures have just been released revealing that two-thirds of Canadian households have internet access and eight out of ten have home computers – all this higher than the OECD average.  With that distinct cutting-edge advantage, one would think Canada would enjoy a deeply engaged citizenry. Sadly we don’t. Something is missing at a time when the Internet should be bringing us together for the challenges and opportunities that confront us.

There is a key distinction between an information-based age and a knowledge-based age. It spells the difference between the success and failure of citizenship at so many levels. We are learning that all this access to data has largely insulated us from one another, whereas many dedicated citizens have used it to acquire a kind of knowledge that assists in bringing their communities together.

The Internet opened up a new world of self-adulation and promotion that fit easily with the age of “Self.” It turned most into unrefined critics, but at the same time assisted others with creating and dialoguing in ways that were redemptive. To me, at least, the key to turning the Internet into a truly powerful force for citizen engagement is deliberation – that ability to converse, argue respectively, move ideas forward, and arrive at compromise solutions. But for that to transpire there must be better mediation on the Net. Consider what that means.

Early in the Internet process, some were so bedazzled by its speed and potential that they took to saying that there should be no standards on it – just let it freewheel. This has happened to a certain degree and often spelled Net chaos. If traditional media ran in such a fashion we could never count on it for accuracy or fairness. The Internet needs to discover some way of bringing accountability and accuracy to the mix. Both the Net and traditional media deal in facts; the key distinction is how they handle it. A rogue reporter could carve out a story with a twisting of those facts but wouldn’t be able to get it past the editorial team. It would be seen for what it was – manipulation. But on the Net a vast sea of bloggers get away with that everyday. Many bloggers are fine and disciplined writers relegated to obscurity because of the sheer number of people just desiring to put forward their own personal stuff. Long before citizens could use the Internet to get to deliberate their collective future, they would have to develop standards that could replicate traditional media’s authoritative and fact-confirming practice.

In an information society these mediators have proved essential. Teachers, editors, citizen-monitoring groups, philosophers, and many others help us make sense of all that information out there. But more importantly, they are brought under various kinds of democratic controls that validate their qualifications. Ways must be devised for the Internet to function in a similar matter so that citizens could trust it. In traditional media there are the tabloids and then the serious journalism – a line of demarcation that must be more clearly laid out on the Internet.

An example of this is this Parallel Parliament blog versus the ones I write for the Huffington Post. I can say what I want in this space and I attempt to keep it as ethical as possible. But the Huffington Post personnel continually email me to fact-check what I write. They require authorizations for pictures and verification for statistics. I’m still granted my opinion but guards are put in place in an effort to insure I don’t manipulate their readers with falsehoods. Ironically, information-based technologies can undermine a knowledge-based society.

Conscientious mediators can assist with organizing all that data along the lines of values and theories. This kind of knowledge, and not mounds of information, is the key to political competence, as well as culture and community building.

If we wish to begin the process of pulling together a citizenry from the vast region of this country, the new data reveals that we can actually access most of our people – an important plus in rebuilding democracy. But if all we can produce is information overload we’ll have lots of colour but no pattern. Great effort has been put into creating software for digital town halls and online voting, but deliberation will take much more than that, and as of yet the new technologies are focusing more on consumerism than on citizen coordination.

The Net remains a blunt instrument for building a refined citizenry, but this is what you get when a resource that was supposed to be used for the public good became largely privatized and focused instead on consumerism. It quickly entered the mainstream of products and an opportunity was lost to strengthen our collective public life. Let’s be honest: the Internet has done a better job at liberating millions of voices and opinions than it has in creating one cohesive voice of public will and deliberation. As Mitch Kapor puts it: “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” Or as Paul Carvel opined: “The Internet: absolute communication, absolute isolation.” Like the printing press, it is a resource that can enable us to walk collectively into our future, or it can leave us the victim of materialistic forces that have proved so successful in keeping us from getting up off the mat. The choice is ours – it’s just a tool.

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