The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: occupy wall street

True Wealth

Of all the callousness. Cheque out this video to catch an idea of just how removed some of the wealthy 1% are from the struggles of average families. At least he claims he’s a member of that elite group, though he didn’t identify himself. Yet his identity was transcended by his naiveté when he blatantly commented to a reporter that he doubted “anyone great” ever came out of the 99%.

At a time when poverty and homelessness are at unacceptable levels and when the majority of citizens are either unemployed, partially employed, or fully employed at minimum wage levels with no benefits, this qualifies as one of the most insensitive remarks of the modern era. Veterans without benefits, seniors on fixed pensions, students unable to afford university or college, and the sick without enough healthcare – how this must infuriate them.

But it’s more than that, surely. The 99% percent built a nation, designed remarkable feats of architecture, protected us from Nazism, fascism, communism and terrorism, raised successful families against increasing economic odds, built remarkable successful businesses, sacrificed for their communities and cared for their world. Only a blind ideologue could overlook such important contributions.

He’s correct about me, of course – I will never amount to anything great. But I’d like to introduce Mr. Hardhearted to my wife. Perhaps he’ll learn an important life lesson.

Jane is a university graduate who opted to work at a food bank instead of moving on to a more lucrative career as a zoologist. She cared for her aging parents and worked with all three levels of government to provide poverty relief to marginalized families both here and around the world. She has met with prime ministers and held the perishing in Rwanda as the genocide journeyed through to its tragic conclusion. She ministered to the starving in Somalia, attended the Earth Summit in Rio, fed the hungry in Iraq during the Gulf War and the threatened in Bosnia during the conflict. She personally helped with the freedom of slightly over 10,000 slaves in Sudan during Africa’s longest running civil war.

It was from this last great humanitarian adventure that she eventually adopted three southern Sudanese orphans from slavery and brought them to Canada. It is a story remarkable in the telling and emotional in the hearing. For all of this Jane has received the highest accolades from her community and her country – all this while working for a minimal wage at a food bank that helps over 3,000 families a month. And I should add that she somewhat managed to tolerate a husband who happens to believe she is the most remarkable person he has ever met.

So, you’re right Mr. Hardhearted – she’ll never make in her lifetime what you likely make in six months. But the people she has freed and fed, the refugees to whom she has provided needed hope, the community she has led for 25 years, and the family for whom she has sacrificed would regard her as one of the truly great elite of the world. While others took their wealth and their talents and moved ever upward in influence, she took all of her remarkable traits and journeyed down to the most forgotten people on earth and enriched them with blessings that couldn’t be purchased.

I hope you apologize for the pain you have caused. But if you’re experiencing a bit of trouble accepting who is truly great in this world, spend an hour with someone who possesses riches of sympathy and sacrifice that could never be purchased. But you’ll need humility to learn that lesson – something she also happens to possess in endless measure.

Moving On, Not Out

As the days of the Occupy London protest continue, its future remains in a state of flux. The official letter delivered from the City of London last week has served notice that bylaws for Victoria Park will be enforced at some point. There are valid points of argument on both sides, but for the protesters a majority will get to decide how they will handle the veiled ultimatum.

However it plays out, here is some friendly advice from someone who has supported the movement from the beginning and wishes it to keep its relevance. Here are some things that could be undertaken to keep the issues alive for which they are protesting.

First, show up in solid numbers for the Cenotaph memorial on Remembrance Day. The right to protest has been baptized in the blood of tens of thousands and that sacrifice must be honoured and respected. Whether or not your tents are in the park, be there, wear your poppies, and willingly take part in something that’s far greater than all of us. To be sure, the older generation has endeavoured to comprehend your principles, just as the younger folks have been excited by your vigilance. Let them know that on a very important day that you recognize your responsibility to those who fought for this country and on that day at least you are one, even with those who oppose your efforts.

Second, I spoke with a number of you at the park in this last couple of weeks and there has been a reticence to move to the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral when they were offered by the church leadership. The hesitancy was founded, in part, on the concern that leaving Victoria Park would spell something of a defeat. That’s a valid worry. But some of you recounted to me a suspicion of anything to do with organized religion. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider. For the past eight months I’ve been writing a book on the movements of peace throughout history. Time and again, regardless of whether you were Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., the church housed the desire for a better world for such individuals and their followers and their successes depended in large part on the resources – physical, spiritual, moral – that the churches brought to bear. Currently, some of the key leaders of churches surrounding the park are together endeavouring to move this community towards more equitable social justice for those lost in poverty. That’s what you have wanted all along as protesters. Ally yourselves with these leaders. Ask for a meeting with them. Urge their congregations to fight for a fairer country, for an environmentally sustainable nation, for a new political order that will respect those marginalized by a dysfunctional wealth distribution system. These are established leaders in this community who can bring much to the table and who already possess the moral clarity and historic lessons of right over wrong. Combine with them.

Third, even whether you’re in or out of the park, start bringing together university profs, media personalities, and community leaders and start asking them how you might turn your important beginnings into a sustained force that will help you to win the day. Right now, in London, small business owners feel like they’ve been marginalized by the economic system. Talk to them and their associations. Start building a case for the new jobs of tomorrow. Almost 80% of those jobs will come from that sector anyway and small to medium-sized business owners require your help to have their voices heard. Their concerns are valid. Start building those partnerships with community associations that will help build your credibility for the future.

Fourth, there is a group of emerging leaders that are starting to make their presence felt in this city and who have been ingenious in using the digital world to lend you their support and further your cause. Ask for a meeting with them and seek guidance as to how your effectiveness can be expanded. You likely know who many of them are; utilize them and request their long-term assistance.

Finally, I ask you to look beyond Victoria Park. Your real place of residence and  protest should be in the minds and hearts of citizens. Your principles and the things for which you struggle transcend any physical location. It is no defeat if by moving out you are moving on with your message. We as a community have to figure out how to best house your spirit of reform. That’s where the churches and the emerging leaders come in. You as a community have to determine how you will expand your efforts to include even more of us in our common pursuit of justice. Don’t let Victoria Park be your Rubicon. Your real place is among us and togethewe all have to discern how that will look in the future

You have done more to raise the profile of poverty in just a few weeks than I have done in years. In part because of that fact, I want to assist your effectiveness where I can. We are all a part of this community and you have drawn important attention to some key irregularities in our society. The question is will you acknowledge your need of us.

The Real Economy Feels The Pain

In his recent article, Andrew Coyne’s rather dubious perspective on the Occupy Wall Street protestors amounted to something of a defence of the economic status quo in Canada. After years of encouraging this country’s leaders to shape up and draw closer to our more powerful neighbour to the south, he unfurled a series of reasonings stating the opposite – we are not America and because of our more sound fiscal protections we should keep our distance during turbulent times.

In some senses it’s hard to argue with that logic. What strikes me though is how he completely misses the urgency of the Canadian context and thus the true essence of the Canadian protests. By terming it a “phony class war” he guaranteed himself a role as an apologist for the elites. Sensing this, one observer on Twitter named“canadiancynic” noted, “coyne doing his masters’ bidding. Good boy, Andrew … have a biscotti.”

I often appreciate Coyne’s columns but this one is disturbing. He seems to think that the “Occupy” protesters are a fledgling group, disconnected from the larger Canadian picture and in so doing adroitly sidesteps the growing scepticism of citizens in general. I’m out and about a lot, in numerous venues and enjoying many interactions, and I can affirm a certain gloom that wasn’t present in the Canadian context only three years ago.

When Andrew says that poverty isn’t as bad as we make it out be, what are we to say to that? The most recent national food bank report that came out just this week alluded to the fact that 50% of this country’s food banks have begun the painful process of rationing; and almost a third might not survive. I have never experienced that in my entire quarter-century of food banking, but Coyne tells me it’s not as bad as presented. To my knowledge, he doesn’t spend a lot of time acknowledging such community services so his opinion is more informed by his intuition than street level experience.

He goes on to say that our banking system is sound – which is kind of like saying the financial elites are fine. Trouble is, I’ve met numerous small business owners in recent weeks that can’t get loans from those banks. So I guess it depends what level you’re on if you’re going to determine that everything’s good.

Rather unfeelingly, Coyne maintains that unemployment isn’t rising in Canada. But there are jobs and there are jobs, and we are rapidly shedding the kind that provide adequately for the worker as well as the products required for employment to drive economic growth. We have an increasing number of service jobs at near minimum wage and he surely can’t expect us to be content with that.

Then there are the major policy challenges that the protestors lay out but which, again, Coyne sidesteps. Our environmental record is, by almost universal agreement, leading us down a path where the cost of effective remedial effort becomes steep. The protesters speak of the rather severe costs emerging on healthcare but that doesn’t earn a mention from the Maclean’s writer. And the democratic deficit, with all time low voting numbers, is a front and centre point of concentration for the “Occupy” protesters but is again missing in action in Coyne’s analysis.

The protesters deserved somewhat better than this, especially from one of this country’s more shrewd observers. They didn’t get it because the writer, like so many of us, hasn’t lived at such a level for years. That could have been true of me as well, but now that I am 60, unemployed, looking for work, with three kids to yet put through university, it does remarkable things to focus one’s thoughts.

The real economy takes account of all economic levels of society and it feels the pain of those who are falling farther behind. It might very well be that we’ll get over the shock and dislocation of these last three years but it will not go away. Regardless of those who say the economy is already on the road to recovery, we will have years yet of high unemployment or under-employment. Wages will continue to languish. Growth will be sluggish and the eventual price we will have to invest to avert environmental disaster could prove threatening to healthy recovery. If the middle class can’t afford the products as they used to, then only those companies with global reach will be able to advance.

We are entering an age when deficits and debts must be repaid and where services will be cut. But citizens are angry for having been thrust into this predicament and they will lash out against the cuts. It will be a difficult era for governing. People with two university degrees will experience increasing trouble finding work. Families will travel less.

All of this had transpired before and we know the prescriptions that will be offered to come out of the doldrums – cuts, reduction of services, attacks on labour unions, the rollback of social services. It’s different this time, though, because people know there is a lot of money out there and that they’re just not getting an equitable share of it. Look for where that money went and you’ll find the focal point of anger by citizens. Coyne might think Canada’s wealthy are being improperly blamed, but his ambivalence towards the real pain people are feeling means we’ll have to look elsewhere for more understanding observation. The real economy senses the pain and reacts to it, unlike the false economy that says, “get a grip, it’s not so bad.” Increasingly, Canadians are aligning themselves with the former.

The Voices

From both north and south Sudan they journeyed to Nairobi, Kenya to take on a system they could hardly comprehend. They were the average women of a beleaguered nation that had been in war too long. While peace talks were taking place nearby between northern and southern leaders, these women settled themselves in public places and attempted to use their traditionally insignificant voices to request reason from those very leaders. It had been over 20 years and the peace they had enjoyed in earlier years was broken, seemingly beyond repair.

This was back in 2005, and I interviewed some of the women. What struck me at the outset was their sheer determination that they would not leave Nairobi until they were heard respectfully by those involved in the peace effort. They were an average lot, most of them mothers or grandmothers seeking to build a better life for their young ones, but since no one seemed to be willing to correct historic injustices they felt the time had come to take something of a lead.

The second thing I learned about them was that they could hardly comprehend the complexity of it all. Sudan was the largest nation in Africa, full of riches and destitution, water and sand, slavery and elitism, tribes and religions. They had no idea how to solve the political conflict, let alone the military struggles taking place across the border region. In many cases they hardly knew the names of their leaders. They were ignorant of the depth of it all but innately understood the societal costs.. But they wanted the system to change, to “study war no more,” to persuade the elites to think of the common people. When they told their stories, they were all personal: my child is dying, we have no schools in the village, we can no longer afford food, our wells are running dry.

These were the women of Sudan – heroic in their simplicity, remarkable in their fortitude. The international media swarmed them, finding in such female exploits the kind of stories that turned humanity into a feat of nobility. When peace was finally negotiated they eventually  journeyed back to their respective homes. They had trusted that others more connected would work out all the details. As the women of Sudan their job was to throw their weight behind the forces for change, little understanding what it would take. They remain largely unrecognized or acknowledged today, but for those involved in the peace process they had become the symbol for what it was all about. And they endured. And they won. Some of them came to be called “the voices” – the ones who kept reminding the negotiators that there were deep problems requiring solutions.

In certain ways they remind me of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. I read the logic of a local reporter yesterday, claiming that though they were surely sincere enough, those protesters camped in one of our main downtown parks were on their way to obscurity because they lacked a concrete agenda. Whereas the women of Sudan had been recognized for doing something similar, and praised for it in the media, the OWS protesters now must bear the obtuse rationale of observers prodding them to come up with a plan. Somehow they won’t be deemed successful unless they do. No one asked the Sudanese women anything like that because they were seen as what they were – citizens attempting to draw attention to systemic flaws that had devastating consequences.

Presently, the majority of Canadians are expressing their own fretfulness over the distribution of wealth in this country and how the middle class family is facing an array of financial pressures. They can’t see the new jobs coming, but witness everyday the old ones passing away. Many are middle-aged, unemployed, and in the process of consolidating their limited resources. They worry about healthcare and the costs for their kids’ education. Some wonder where their next meal will come from. Soldiers are returning from Afghanistan with no sense of future direction. The rich get richer. The gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider. And after all this, jaded observers question the protesters, not the conditions that have led to such challenges.

I have no idea whether the OWS movement will run out of steam or imagination, but their legitimacy was to be found in their willingness to alert Canadians to the dangers before us and some of the injustices of our present financial system. When the women of Sudan did something similar, reporters showed not only sympathy, but a growing curiosity as to what the true problems were in the land. Not here – at least not enough. I spoke with a man today who had visited the food bank and was just grateful that a group of concerned citizens were demonstrating for a correction of the system. He lost his job seven months ago and he senses they feel his pain. These protesters are somehow connected to every Canadian who has fallen through the cracks or worries about their financial future. To criticize that the protesters lack some future agenda is to make light of our national collective pain. Journalists need to resist the urge to move on to something else, but that would take work, humanity, digging for the real issues, and explaining them to Canadians. If these problems are indeed real, every Canadian should at least acknowledge that they are more aware of them because some dedicated people decided to camp in a park. That was the point of the protests anyway – to be the voices of concern. Their future isn’t our problem, but rather our present.

The Real Economy Is Inclusive

I want to talk about “talk.” On Monday I spent an invigorating three hours with Jim Zacchero’s Canadian Studies 2200E class at King’s University College. The students listened respectfully, but you could tell that what they really wanted to dialogue about was the Occupy Wall Street protest. They are captivated by it. After feeling alienated from the system, they found it fascinating to watch people trying to change it through peaceful means. When asked what I thought of it all, I informed them of my agreement and respect for the protests but that it would be wasted effort if these same students didn’t start engaging and being part of the process. To be successful, the Occupy Wall Street movement will have to discover a way of getting these keen young minds out on to the field.

For those particular students, part of the effectiveness of the OWS movement was the respectful way in which it was attempting to prompt civic engagement. The perpetual critics aside, Zacchero’s students perceived this as part of the movement’s legitimacy, and it is.

We’ve become so used to rank partisanship in politics, ideological punditry in the media, and cruel invectives from disenchanted citizens, that the idea of a “civil” engagement has become novel. The real economy recognizes this and encourages it because it’s the best way for society to voice its concerns and fix them at the same time. Civil engagement is civil society’s greatest gift to the future, and that has been precisely what has been lacking of late.

Civil talk isn’t necessarily the same thing as “public” talk, which is something we can get from ideological call-in media programs at any time and is often as far away from civility as you can get. Public rants are a process of venting; civil talk is the process of engagement and the need for compromise.

The philosopher Hegel once astutely observed that since the pages of history devoted to peace are mostly blank, the preferred model for our public talk is war. That is increasingly what we have now, and yet Canada is one of those countries that demonstrated remarkable dialogue, respect and compromise through most of its years. Because of that we avoided much of the violence witnessed in other regions of the world.

For a society to truly be progressive and imagine its way into a more successful future it simply must find ways in which to engage in civic diplomacy. It’s as much about listening as it is talking. The best kinds of leaders are those who talk as a result of listening.  Listening to the most of the leaders of the various protest movements has revealed a willingness to engage the status quo and find overlapping strategies that can correct some of the financial and political wrongs of our era. They don’t seek to remove the Wall Street types but to place them in the proper perspective of a truly prosperous nation. They know well enough that free enterprise is essential to job creation and the creation of wealth, yet in an age when wealth is going increasingly to the few and job creation is rapidly becoming just a phrase they have every right to the question the system. Those taking the hard to the protesters are, by extension, defending the status quo. For the media this can be a cancer and for politicians it can be a death knell. Yes, people have the right to protest or to protest the protesters, but it shouldn’t blind us to the reality that it is really the status quo that is on trial, not those who speak against it or defend it.

This is something the real economy understands but to which the fake economy is blind. If the status quo results in financial monopolies, deeper unemployment, abominable pollution practices, escalating poverty rates, and the gradual decline of the middle class, there is a certain ethical failure that is revealed. By protesting a system that produces such injustices, those demonstrating in the streets have a certain moral underpinning whether their opponents like it or not. Most of the respective powers of the day spoke out against the civil rights marches or Gandhi’s peace demonstrations, but they couldn’t ultimately prevail against such protests because the flaws in those systems were readily apparent.

For this reason alone, the OWS movement should be given a hearing, even if the protesters are yet in the process of defining their purposes. Polls reveal that most citizens are fretting about their financial futures and that they believe both governments and corporations have rigged the game against them. They might not take part in the OWS movement, but it actually reflects the reality of those polls. Those opting to criticize the movement outright are taking on a huge portion of the public as well.

It’s time to stop looking at the protesters and start looking at the disenchantment of citizens in general. They are disillusioned and worried and dissing the practices or behaviours of the protestors offers no solution to the greater malaise. A respectful civil society’s voice is inclusive, collaborative, and is, above all, solution-oriented. This is precisely what many of its opponents are worried about – they like the “solution” they already have because they personally benefit from it. The true test of a society’s inclusiveness is not that it makes everyone the same but that it can deliberate despite the differences. These protests have overall behaved respectfully and desired dialogue, and because they represent the larger concern that most citizens endure, they deserve a listening ear.

%d bloggers like this: