The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: liberalism

Liberalism – After You’ve Got It

The Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran once made the prescient observation: “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.”

One gets the sense that today’s liberalism is facing both challenges in the same moment.  Having triumphed at so many levels (and failing at some), liberalism has either rested on its laurels or forgotten its birthright as it rushed along the same road of materialism and affluence as everyone else.  And yet there remains within many the desire to find a new, more dynamic future for this country.  The future of liberalism will ultimately depend on whether desire or apathy wins.

One thing is certain: neither of these can depend on sentimentalism.  Those that are liberally minded today, coming from all stripes across the spectrum, are aware that our country’s journey to self-empowerment has stalled.  They often deal with this by casting a fond eye back to 1967, or the development of healthcare, the usefulness of peacekeeping, or the reality of multiculturalism.  Both those who desire and those who are indifferent are impractically maudlin about this part of the nation’s past.

Liberals can’t recede into such golden hues lest they lose their relevance.  Liberalism today, like it or not, is now carrying the burden of maturity.  It has been around long enough and achieved enough success that it now bears the responsibilities of progress and modernism.  It created a land of wealth, individual and collective rights, and a carefully crafted niche on the world’s stage, and now it must assume responsibility for those legacies – not by sitting back but by preparing Canada for the next step.

It was through liberalism that Canada outgrew is confining preoccupation with tradition and gained a wider perspective of life.  But in many ways this cut small “l” liberals off from the more conservatively minded who wanted things to remain as they were.  It is an abiding truism in any country that conservative temperaments wish for a past that no longer exists.  They still hanker today for the lure of the simple family farm, when, in truth, their support for an unfettered free market has largely relegated that great Canadian reality to the dustbin of history.

From its stress on education and enlightenment, liberalism is unable to escape the burden of sophistication.  Broader knowledge brings more possibilities and problems at the same time.  Yet it can’t be escaped.  Complexity is now a standard within Canadian life.  This has brought many benefits, and there’s hardly a liberally minded person out there who would trade places with those pining for a nostalgic life.  Yet liberals have not yet dealt with the abiding problems that derived from all that sophistication.  Liberalism set the framework for creating fabulous wealth, yet it resulted in environmental decline at the same time.  It assisted millions in owning their first home, but looked on in perplexity at the rising tide of homelessness.  In its creation of health systems, it has also had to observe the lack of access to that system faced by millions.  Its founding of the principle of multiculturalism somehow saw it neglect our aboriginal people at the same time.  Conservatives, in their preference for being left alone, worry little about such inconsistencies, but liberals bear responsibility for any outcome in these areas.

This is not a bad thing.  The disillusionment confronting liberalism today is a natural byproduct of a nation acquiring so much affluence in such little time.  This is the price of progress, but indifference is hardly the way to deal with it.  There is work to be done, oversights that must be corrected.  Many conservatives evoke the past only to bury it alive with their market-oriented outlook.  Liberalism must ensure that it doesn’t carry a similar weakness.  The past is the past.  It’s the present and the future that we must get on with.

There are dark and looming clouds on our horizon.  The last few years have witnessed the increase in competing communities, massive deficits, corporate meltdowns, a loss of place in the world, and the introduction of a culture of brutality in our political life.  These can’t be merely wished away.  These things taken together are slowly bringing Canada to the inevitability of authoritarianism.  Because of its impressive ability to break down the walls of such repression, liberalism is required again today as much as it was in the time of kings.  That will never occur if we remain indifferent to our slide to despotism, nor can we discover a new future if we remain sentimental.  The question is:  are those liberally minded folk from all parties and from all walks of life capable of bringing themselves together for the cause of freedom and self-liberation and empowerment once more?  Michael Ignatieff is talking about a big red tent composed of decent people from all stripes, including conservatives who detest how their political philosophy has been overrun by hard right Republicanism.  But will we do it?

Former Toronto mayor Allan Lamport was often belittled for his statement that, “Canada is the greatest nation in this country,” but he might have actually hit on something.  We have become a country of parts, of regions, of division, and of meanness.  Where is Canada in all that mess?  Somewhere in the confusion of our politicians and the distraction of our citizens lies a land that can still be the greatest country in the world for its belief in the creation of wealth, the power of free enterprise for good, the ability to be tolerant and welcoming, employment for all and the ongoing struggle for poverty for none, a natural and environmentally sustainable jewel in the international crown, and a presence for good in every region of the world.  That is the Canada we want, but we must begin the process of cleaning up the mess, splintering, and enmity of our present time.

One of the key secrets to successful living isn’t getting what we want; it’s wanting it after we get it.  Well, we’ve inherited an exceptional country and it’s time to want it again.  But it must be regained by the kind of national temperament and disposition willing to work with anyone to get it and to empower them in the process.  Liberalism is the question for which Canada is the answer.

Note:  This concludes the series on liberalism.  Now it’s back to the old format and shorter posts.  Thanks to all those faithful readers this summer.

Liberalism – Sidebar #5

Our summer of studies on liberalism has drawn to a close.  Comments have come fast and furious – the constructive have been passed on to others seeking change, the inane have been happily “spammed,” and those of vitriolic hatred have been passed on to the appropriate authorities.

I want to personally thank those who took the time to give thoughtful and thought-provoking replies to the posts.  Such comments affirmed for me the belief that progressives exist in all parties and are frustrated by hyper-partisanship of our present politics.  At least in their sentiments expressed in response to this blog they have proven that well-meaning Canadians need not be ideologically biased or think themselves so intelligent that other views don’t matter.

Just yesterday, I received the following comment that I think best sums up what these posts have been striving for.

“I have been following your series of posts on Liberalism over the past few weeks and must say I am appreciating the groundwork you are laying for a more compassionate foundation for the future of our country. As a small “c” conservative, I find we share much in common. I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to help change the extreme thinking of some of my colleagues is to stay within the conservative ranks and try to be a voice for moderation and sharing like you are promoting from your Liberal position.

What is concerning me more than anything else is that the bar of success in the material world has been set very high and many now consider that any reduction in standard of living, even if they maintain a standard higher than 90% of the rest of the world, is a step backwards. There is an air of entitlement that many are unable to release. This in turn is generating a strong shift to the right, particularly in the United States where people like Glenn Beck can put together rallies with several hundred thousand people who are opposed to any sharing of the wealth. Many of these people are not prepared to even acknowledge the issue of climate change for fear that it costs them in some personal way. They can gloss over the human rights issues because it requires them to move away from their television sets and get involved. They are focused only on the bottom line of themselves.

In addition to your blog, I read several others each day, both left and right leaning.  I fear that there is a strong polarization taking place in our society and the fight will not be pleasant. It seems to me that the voice of reason that you continue to deliver will become increasingly important and hopefully, it will not be drowned out by the yelling on both sides such as you endure each day in question period in parliament.”

Another insightful response came from the opposite end of the country, from a woman in Vancouver.

“I have been troubled all summer by your posts.  I began by thinking you should have been in the NDP party, Glen, but now I realize it doesn’t matter.  All those who you describe as possessing a “progressive spirit” are naturally bonded by their love for this country no matter what their political allegiance.  The more I read your thoughts I realized I had somehow become a coward.  I was a big supporter of Dawn Black of the NDP and her example showed me what a good parliamentarian could do.  But in the process I had become so partisan that all I could see was the point of view of my party.  Not any more.  Through these posts I have learned I was only brave when I was in my own crowd.  Canada deserves better than my frail performance and it will get it.  I will now fight against the slurs and character assassinations of the present political game and I’ll be glad to join with you anytime as we battle for, as you say, “a better public space.”  My NDP roots are strong but my love for Canada is stronger.  Thanks for bring it out of me once again.  At almost 60 years of age, I should have known better.”

Thank you to all the readers and respondents this summer.  Your collective voice and hopes emerged through the vendettas and sheer ignorance of the “digital hit men” and I believe at some point you will prevail.  Liberalism doesn’t belong to the Liberal party alone but to every Canada who believes in the goal of self-empowerment and collective accountability.  Our challenge is now to come together to claim the public space once more.  Thanks for the hope that it’s possible.

Liberalism – The New Leadership

We have discussed the broad challenges facing liberalism in the coming decades.  The rise of the “comfortable” bent on protecting their lifestyle will pose difficulties.  As the most recent Department of Foreign Affairs report stated, the closing of so many embassies and High Commissions overseas in just the last few years has lowered Canada’s standing internationally.  Poverty of various kinds, and women’s equality remain a pipe dream.  The lack of a community voice at upper levels of government will continue to result in solutions that aren’t practical.  As long as modern media, in its various forms, concentrates on the battle between political opponents and fails to aid citizens in their dialogue with one another, it will offer little assistance.  Others have been mentioned, like the overarching issue of climate change, and all the challenges are abiding and success is not guaranteed.

Then there are the more immediate tests directly facing us.  Unemployment is high and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  But it’s in the nature of the jobs lost that the real story is being played out.  While the government tells us that 205,000 jobs have been created in the last few months, it fails to be transparent in saying that these jobs are what the economists call “McJobs” – part-time employment.  We are not being told that 231,000 full-time jobs have been lost in that same period, and there’s no sign they are returning.  Ontario alone has lost over 56,000 of these jobs; Alberta has lost 15,000.  Just this week 600 public service workers were let go, with plenty more to come. Pensions are depreciating.  While all this has been going on, we have compiled a deficit of over $50 billion that will have to be paid off in the next few years.  At the same time the government has plans to spend $10 billion on prisons, even as the crime rate continues to decline.  Another $16 billion will be spent on untendered contracts for fighter jets when many question the need.  The plan to cut another $6 billion in way of corporate tax cuts merely adds to a financial predicament that would challenge the future of any nation.

Such immediate and long-term challenges will call for a new way of thinking, of a dedicated new kind of leadership that challenges the status quo and provides a concrete vision for us to recapture our earlier greatness, both at home and abroad.  How will we respond as small “l” and large “L” liberals?

At the very least it must call for dedicated actions in our home communities from those of liberal temperaments.  And it will call for people to enter politics for the sake of things bigger than their own egos or ambitions.  This will be difficult, but the times call for such men and women.  George MacDonald was right when he penned: “It is not in the nature of politics that the best people should be elected.  The best people do not want to govern their fellow men.”  There is truth in this, but what if the times demand it?  Plato, in the Republic, counters MacDonald’s reasoning by stating: “Mankind will never see an end to trouble until lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power become lovers of wisdom.”  If we require anything to get us through these difficult days and years ahead, it will be wisdom primarily generated from the community level.  If good people of sound liberal disposition fail to embrace this challenge, then Plato’s later observation will surely come true:  “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

We need wisdom of the humane kind and no more of this “dog-eat-dog” business that is ruining our nation and creating divisions among us that will take decades to repair.  Rapidly disappearing is the idea that a leadership class can play a role in elevating ordinary people to reach for something higher in life; instead, much of modern leadership guides us into a kind of combat that cheapens our national possibilities.  Today’s liberalism should be provoking conversation about what kind of leadership is truly required to meet the aforementioned challenges.  That leadership will have to show itself willing to guide a process in which those who don’t share liberalism’s views are permitted to make their views count.  This has previously been difficult for liberalism in Canada because its past triumphs have caused it to believe that only its beliefs are principled and wise.  Canada is not so homogenous.  For this reason, the views of progressive conservatives and progressive socialists must be accounted for.

But if it’s true that the only way conservatism or socialism can remain viable in Canadian society is by appealing to the fears and prejudices of ordinary people, then liberalism must step into the breach, challenge such deviance, and attempt to lead people to a more positive and enlightened outcome.

A progressive liberalism must produce progressive leaders, and at times this will require it to confront erroneous views of the public and not just reflect them.  This is indeed difficult, since so much of politics today involves pandering to the masses in ways that belittle the public space and discount citizens’ capabilities to hear contrary arguments and become self-empowered as a result.

Tomorrow will be the last post on this series on liberalism, but it will all be for nothing if the good, wise and decent people in society don’t just say “no” to our current preoccupation with meanness, but also fail to step up and ennoble the pivotal world of politics.  It was Plato’s hope; it must be ours.

Liberalism – The National Conversation

According to a number of national columnists, Michael Ignatieff has been energized after his 40,000-kilometer bus tour and some 150-200 events across the country.  There’s more than just politics in it.  As Franklin Roosevelt himself discovered after a similar journey while in opposition, it speaks to the very essence of democracy itself.  He was not only energized, but gained a whole new “ground level” understanding of the country by the time he became president.

It’s time we talked to one another about the country we want, just as Ignatieff is doing.  For that to occur, however, there must be humility, concern and respect.  Respect is necessary in order to provide room for other views and opinions.  Concern over our national slide downwards must be a precursor to that discussion.  And humility is essential because for too long now we have concentrated on our own personal pursuits and gains as the expense of national progress.

There is a reason the elites speak only to themselves and that citizens barely talk to one another: the absence of institutions that promote general and civic conversation across various opinions and disciplines.  While liberalism has been noted and applauded for the various national frameworks in acquiring necessities such a healthcare and pensions, it has been primarily at the local level, where people of patient liberal temperament made the greatest strides.  But with the decay of civic institutions ranging from political parties to public gatherings and informal meeting places, there is no national conversation to speak of, and what is there is largely specialized and driven by the media’s own agenda.  Social classes, unions, ethnic groups – these and many others are increasingly speaking a language of their own and only co-mingle at special ceremonial occasions and holidays.  The national conversation is rarely occurring because the community conversations are becoming splintered.  There are many exceptions, but the rule of isolationism is expanding.

Working people, students, seniors, civic leaders – these and others have a common stake in working out their own collective future, primarily at the local level.  They must protect their communities from harm, but must also demonstrate accountability, honesty and trust.  But to do all this there must be a determined attempt to “come together” to discern the way ahead.  This is already occurring to a certain degree.  Change Camp is one such group that is attempting to get citizens to re-engage in the process of finding a deliberative and progressive future.

I realize this sounds somewhat strange coming from a national politician, but I have gleaned from experience that the taverns, coffeehouses, pubs, and places like libraries represent those venues whereby citizens meet, debate, learn, and at time find consensus.  It is in such informal places that people can talk without constraint, except for that constraint imposed by the group itself.  Ralph Waldo Emerson used to say that conversation is the city’s lifeblood.  Without good talk, cities become places precisely where the main concern is simply to get through the day.  He was right.  We need to have “mid-way conversations” – meeting grounds between the workplace and the family circle.  We have permitted these places to recede into irrelevance in public life and any kind of liberalism that matters must begin to get citizens talking again about the big things that affect community and national life.  The media must also fulfill its original mandate and help propel and recount the citizen dialogue that is so essential to our wellbeing as a nation.  It is the very absence of these things that has resulted in malls replacing pubs and seniors residences and private clubs substituting for libraries and churches.

For liberalism, getting a national conversation going again, driven primarily from the local level, will be the only way we can make serious decisions as to the future of Canada.  We have accepted poverty for too long.  Climate change isn’t going away and demands solutions.  Receding pensions and healthcare will cut into the quality of life of millions of Canadians.  Our image in the world has taken a beating.  It will require sacrifice from each and every one of us if we are to successfully deal with each of these seemingly intractable problems.  In truth, the speed of the climb to our current level of affluence succeeded in distracting us from the future we must leave to our children.  It’s time to stop living in the moment and start thinking about their future.  We must place work over wealth, sacrifice ahead of satisfaction, and self-empowerment over self-indulgence.

It was never liberalism’s intention that we would stop on our journey to collective progress.  We were always meant to save, to live within our means, to care for our planet, to place our children’s financial security ahead of our own, and to make our local communities the epicenter of our citizen input and activity.  We’ve become distracted, that’s all, and we are capable of pulling this country back from the brink of narcissism.  But it will require us to have open and frank conversations with one another instead of just leaving it to politicians to decide from a distance.  Liberalism doesn’t begin in Ottawa but in the spirit of each citizen and it can never be successful again until it rouses the collective will of Canadians to action.  As Michael Ignatieff is discovering, we have to talk and listen.  And then we have to put our hard-won compromises into action.

Liberalism – The National Pathology

There are a few things about wealth in this country that we should get our collective head around.

The first is that we are more vulnerable to it. From the beginning of time people craved riches but understood that it was never likely to be theirs.   Liberal economics turned all that on its head, and in Canada most people have achieved a standard of living thought impossible only a few decades previous.  The average kitchen that cost $9,000 in 1958 now costs almost $60,000.  In the U.S., the number of vehicles owned between 1969 and the late ‘90s grew by a phenomenal 144%.  More staggering yet is that this figure represents twice the growth of the number of drivers.  In 2003, the U.S. Department of Transport reported that the number of cars per household was higher than the number of people.  The number of people now owning second homes is simply overwhelming.  Our vulnerability to wealth has also hurt us physically.  Our calorie intake per day is now 20% greater than just three decades ago.

Second, wealth is far more visible. Just take a look at the average television fare.  Weekly shows used to be about Coronation Street, the Beachcombers, or Archie Bunker – middle class folks struggling to keep ahead.  Now it’s all about the rich, or those striving to be so, with much of it reaching down to appeal to those in their early grades of schooling.  In these shows every house is massive, every car is the hottest.  On every billboard we pass by, easy wealth beckons to us, reminding us that what we have is not as great as it could be.

Third, wealth has proved to be a costly venture.  The current economic decline will cost the world well over a trillion dollars – money wasted by speculators and “get rich quick” schemes.  The resulting poverty, home and business bankruptcies has been staggering.  We have dealt with our desire for wealth by using the credit card – exceedingly.  Our spending isn’t coming from our saving so much as its practiced by pushing our present debt into the future.  Our homes are bigger than we require, our cars are faster than needed, our stomachs are stretched more than we like, and if the Grim Reaper of financial accountability descended on us all at once, our crushing debt would send us back to the poor house.

Researchers remind us that people who live in such a fashion constantly fix themselves on acquiring more, often to the neglect of other societal needs.  This is what narcissism is all about.  But is it what Canadians really want?  The truth to that answer is mixed.  If we knew that living beyond our means meant a crushing debt load passed on to our children, would we cut back?  Knowing that our consumer patterns are threatening the very life of the planet, would we make do with less?  Would we make the financial sacrifices necessary to ensure women receive equal pay for equal work, or that child poverty would finally be defeated.

Today’s liberalism must face this reality head-on, and with vision.  Conservatives in recent years have reveled in the kind of world 18th century liberal philosopher Adam Smith envisioned when he spoke about letting the free market run its course.  They have held to this to such a degree that we have the crushing debt loads we have now.  It’s how they justify their aversion to state intervention in terms of poverty reduction, healthcare and education.

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen reminds us all that Smith held great fears of what would happen if markets controlled societies.  Conservatives never mention that Smith widely defended and promoted public services, such as free education and poverty relief.  His worry about the inequality and poverty that might stubbornly remain in modern market economies has proved prophetic.  Adam Smith worried that when our most cherished hopes are for ourselves and not for society or even the future, we will be drawn into a world of risk and crushing debt – again prophetic.

With all this, we have a vivid picture of a new pathology: the more we want for ourselves exclusively, the more vulnerable society becomes overall.  How will liberalism answer this?  How does the state use its power to liberate the individual and where do we draw the line between the individual and society as a whole?  This will represent liberalism’s greatest future challenge.

Liberalism evidenced great tenacity in delivering the world from authoritarianism and financial elitism – a matter of historic record.  But does it have the moral clarity and courage at present to deliver us from ourselves?  And how is this to be done politically, when so much in politics is about attempting to please the citizen to acquire the vote?  Truth is not determined by majority vote, and we fool ourselves when thinking so.

Liberalism has been the great purveyor of financial infrastructure in the Western world and it has proved highly successful.  But that great undertaking has produced a world of narcissistic temperament.  It is time that the new liberalism, the muscular kind, find the courage to lay the grid for a new moral infrastructure, one that says we can’t proceed or hold any legitimacy as long as we spoil the planet, leave poverty unaddressed, citizen potential unused, women unequal, aboriginals sidelined, our local communities neglected, and the gap between rich and poor widening at alarming rates.  A liberalism that tackles these kinds of challenges is the pressing need of the hour.

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