The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Anatomy of Hatred

Hatred. Neo-Nazis. White Supremacists. Racism. KKK. These terms, and many like them, we had hoped were slowly disappearing from our public life and lexicon, yet they are everywhere in these troubled days. For those individuals and groups who have felt the sheer injustice of such things, however, they have been an ever-present reality.

With the events of Charlottesville, we are struggling to grasp the implications of what happens when those most troubling facets of hatred emerge again to prove we never did deal with them effectively. Rallies are being held across the United States and Canada, including London, this weekend that pit the best and worst of human nature against one another.

The troubles of recent days have caused me to reflect on the seminal speech given by former dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic. In a 1990 address titled, “The Anatomy of Hate,” Havel unpacked the lessons he had learned during his country’s Soviet oppression and its eventual liberation. Whether in conflict or in peace, he discovered, hatred never rests.

What makes Havel’s insights so compelling is his focus on how individual hatred most often leads to group animosity, as when he said near the beginning of his speech: “Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even spreading it. I would even say that group hatred … is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred.”

We have seen too much of this of late. Rather than drawing people through policy, human values or a sense of social justice, hatred, by itself, is sufficient enough a recruitment tool – just rile people up and they will destroy anything that stands in the way of their anger, whether it’s the public space or personal dignity. Where they can’t acquire recognition through the respect of all people, they seek to achieve it by destroying anything of human merit in their path.

Havel had lived long enough to see that many who allied themselves in his call for change were simply cruising on his notoriety in order to obliterate everything they hated. When he became president of his country he realized that his ascension to power had also ushered in many who simply wanted to destroy, never to build.

Yet modern society has progressed enough that it knows hatred in such settings and often organizes against it. This is what the alt-right, racist, bigoted, white supremacy, neo-Nazi coalition discovered in Charlottesville when those brutal two days were over – the country rejected them. And this is the stage that decimates the haters the most, Havel affirmed. “People who hate wish to attain the unattainable and are consumed by the impossibility of attaining it.” The result? “They grow tormented by the evidence of others rejecting their methods.”

How should we react to acts of hatred? That’s easy: reject and speak out against them. Yet it is necessary that in so doing we examine our own motives and our rush to anger, lest we become victims of the same harsh level of intolerance. Hatred always starts as animosity, moves on to wishing harm on others, and frequently results in actions that induce harm. Such a path requires only two things: an object for our animosity and the wish to damage it. The great teachers of humanity and ethics have repeatedly reminded us that hatred is easy to spot in our adversaries, more difficult in our allies and friends, and ultimately the hardest to see in ourselves. Such smallness of soul we must ever be on guard against, individually and as a community.

And there is another big lesson we must learn if we are to keep hatred from gaining ground: many in our midst are affected by it everyday, and remaining quiet about such occurrences, or pretending they don’t exist, is both beneath us as citizens and hurtful to our city. Online harassment, racism, verbal and physical attacks against those of differing sexual persuasions, political targeting and religious bigotry – these are ongoing occurrences and it’s time we acknowledged them and came together to defeat them.

As Labour Day approaches, we have work ahead of us as citizens. It involves building a better city where acts of hatred result in a community mobilizing against such travesties and for those victimized by them. But, as Havel would likely remind us, hatred is the enemy, not the haters, and as we gather this weekend to speak out against such vile practices it is vital that we know the difference, lest we become like those we oppose.

Democracy Bites Back

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 13: Protestors rally against white supremacy and racism in Columbus Circle on August 13, 2017 in New York City. The rally is organized by a New York City based group called ‘Refuse Fascism’ following clashes between white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12th. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in Charlottesville when a car driven by a white supremacist barreled into a crowd of counter-protesters following violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There is no way to adequately describe the Donald Trump phenomenon, regardless of the now countless attempts to get our collective heads around it. It’s gone from being a novelty and growing sense of unease to a place where millions are actually fearing for their democracy. That’s a good thing, and it just could be that Trump’s particular brand of egoism is creating something in America that it couldn’t create by itself – a higher expectation for itself.

The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the past week has sufficiently reminded us what can happen when, and if, leadership refuses to put a clear definition on the very threat such actions and such groups represent to the collective well-being of citizens. Yet it’s also a reminder that Donald Trump didn’t create such depth of animosity, racism, bigotry, hatred and violence. As DeShanne Stokes would put it: “Trump didn’t divide America. He just doused us with gasoline and fanned the flames.”

And there it is: by failing to keep a careful watch on democracy the ghosts of history have returned in a fashion that is deeply painful to all those groups targeted by the haters. But it’s consequently deeply scarring to the rest of us as well. Things are happening in the United States and around the world that are movingly unacceptable to us, but not to the degree to where were are moved sufficiently to prevent them.

If Charlottesville has done anything, it has reminded that a fluid sense of social justice and idealism yet run through civil society and will bite back and display signs of life that many thought had elapsed.

For the alt-right movement this is proving a difficult lesson. Their hope that having something of a mild anarchist in the Oval Office could permit a resurgence for their efforts, has, for now at least, been dashed. They had somehow seen in Trump’s victory and rampant promises to “make America great again” as well as to initiate an immigration ban as something of a moral cover, and opportunity, to “go public” once more and up their cancerous designs.

It is up to citizens and not just voters to show that they dream of something better than the society they tolerate.

Let’s be clear, white nationalism took a severe hit this week – not enough to kill it, but to remind the movement that they are still on the “outs,” as far as the majority of Americans are concerned. For all the criticism of the media, the Republicans and the Democrats, and the entire political order, this past week has revealed a latent sense of decency and political poignancy that would have remained lethargic if Charlottesville hadn’t occurred. And the message was unequivocal: not here, not now, not ever. There would be no room in main street America for such animalistic tendencies.

Democracy, for all its complexities, layers, and confoundedness, is pushing back and it’s likely that the white nationalists underestimated just how much civil society, the media, political elites, and even the world would denounce them. The sheer scope of the opposition to their hateful methods has been compelling.

But the real question remains: is it enough? Comedian Jimmy Fallon, in reacting to Charlottesville and Trump’s tepid reaction, said it was time, “to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights. We cannot do this. We cannot go backward.” He’s right, of course, but are we ready to live our daily lives as living expressions of that reality, or only respond when some horror occurs? It’s an important distinction.

Another comedian, Seth Meyers, put it plainly: “He is not president.” Millions might feel that way, but it’s not true. Donald Trump is in the Oval Office, and citizens, politicians, and the media helped put him there. This is ever the curse of democracy – open elections don’t always result in fair elections. It is up to citizens and not just voters to show that they dream of something better than the society they tolerate. That has been occurring across many fronts in the past few days. The secret is now to turn that into a collective and individual way of life and not just a sentiment.

See this post in its original Huffington Post format here.

 

 

 

As Soft Power Ramps Up, Soft Power Comes Into Its Own

With “hard” power clearly in a resurgent mode, it’s time to focus more on “soft” power and the advantages it holds in balancing off some of the more frightening aspects of human nature.

Fortunately, there are lots of resources to assist us, chief of which was the recently released The Soft Power 30 – an intriguing global ranking of Soft Power and those nations that attempt to use it.   The rankings aren’t as vital to the research that went into them but they nevertheless are important, even ironic. Here are the top 10: France (1), United Kingdom (2), United States (3), Germany (4), Canada (5), Japan (6), Switzerland (7), Australia (8), Sweden (9) and the Netherlands (10).

Canada’s positioning in the top 5 shouldn’t be construed as some love affair with the Trudeau government, but instead a well-researched work that not only comprehends the stability and dexterity of our nation but its greater impact on the world at large.

The ironic component is the inclusion in the top 10 of countries like the United Kingdom and especially the U.S. – both of which are usually viewed for their military might and global reach. It was 27 years ago that Professor Joseph Nye first coined the phrase “soft power” and it has remained in the global lexicon ever since. Nye continually attested to the need for America to enhance its “soft” advantage in order to compensate for the overemphasis on its military capabilities and unmatched influence over global affairs. When we peer deeper into America’s potential for soft power we see indeed that it is massive in scope and well resourced for a positive approach to international relations, involving the use of economic and cultural influence. The same holds true for the UK, so it’s only proper that they continue to matter when we speak of soft power.

America will never be able to escape its image of global dominance regardless of how much of its soft power it chooses to enhance, but with the current sabre rattling on this rise around the globe we are entering a new shadowed and troubling era somewhat reminiscent of the early Cold War period in the 1950s and 1960s. It is indeed alarming to witness exertion of raw political and military power in places like Russia, the U.S., China, North Korea, Syria, numerous African nations, and even Venezuela. The hard days are back and with them the rise in insecurity among the collective peoples of the earth.

All of which makes the needed emphasis on soft power all the more necessary and welcome. In future posts, we’ll look into how soft power works, especially its diplomatic and cultural elements, but before that, we have to consider what has happened to power itself – how it has changed and how it might affect the international community.

For those of us in the West, it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional power, as we have known it, doesn’t carry the cachet it used to. Power and money are shifting from West to East, from governments to citizens, from corporate titans to agile start ups, from men to women, from state to non-state actors, from government incentives to NGOs, and from military machines to off-the-grid terrorist and paramilitary organizations.

All this means that power is slipping away from those that once prided their secure hold of it. In a word, it is being “democratized” – from the few to the many. At the same time, it is being redefined, and this is where Canada’s importance comes in. As militarily and economically mighty as nations like America or the UK may be, it is becoming clear that they are nations divided – over Brexit, immigration, refugees, isolationism, free trade, even political brands.

As nations distracted by change at every level, other players who have achieved a certain amount of domestic sustainability, economic vitality, and global influence are watching their credibility rise. Canada is clearly one of those nations holding such advantages and stands ready to fill in some of the vacuum created by the preoccupation of the larger military and economic players. We’re not talking about merely capturing media attention or even a Security Council seat here; this is about cultural, economic, civic, diplomatic, tech savvy, gender and diversity advantages that have obvious credence in a world desperate for such things at street level.

This country’s importance is on the rise, not through wishful thinking or global celebrity, but through clear actions by Canadian citizens, companies, communities and a diverse culture that transcend our politics and provide us our way forward.

Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

 

Admit It: We’re All Trump Addicts Now

There’s no soap opera like it, or even a reality TV show that can compete with the sheer breadth of what’s going on in the Donald Trump administration. And there’s no setting better than the White House, Capitol Hill, or rallies of thousands who largely support his rhetoric.

Whether we are inclined to agree to disagree with him, the presence of Trump in the political universe has transformed Washington, democracy and the media, both social and traditional. And if we were honest we should admit that it has transformed us. He is the subject of conversation in every coffee shop or where citizens gather and dialogue. It’s an addiction and if we’re at all inclined to overcome it the first step on the road to recovery is to admit our dependency.

This is something the media is likely disinclined to do, for understandable reasons. Ratings are important and Trump’s presidency might very well revive components of the media industry. A Harvard University study revealed that media coverage of Donald Trump’s first 100 days was three times greater than any of his predecessors. That’s significant and explains much of why we, too, are fascinated by all of it. It’s theatre and we can’t get enough of it. Centrists watch CNN. Right-wingers take to Fox News. Even CBC and CTV provide large doses of the Washington shuffle. And even for those millions who fall into neither category, they still watch because it’s the most salacious thing out there – kind of like Game of Thrones, but in real time and with real players. Every day provides another OMG revelation, followed by hours of commentary – little of it edifying.

We know all of this, naturally, and curse ourselves for returning to the screen every hour or so to catch up on the latest scandal.   Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?

It’s always a timely thing to ask what something like this means to democracy itself and the citizens who are its lifeblood. With some merit, belief in both the media and government has dropped to all time lows, especially in America. We say we are searching for better but then help to drive viewer ratings even higher. If Trump were boring, we likely wouldn’t be watching. And if we weren’t watching, democracy wouldn’t be newsworthy – a vicious cycle supported largely by those very citizen-voters who say they had hoped for better.

When Dwight Eisenhower met with John Kennedy the day prior to the young Democrat’s inauguration he reminded his successor that there was no such thing as a 12-hour day at the White House. “The desk is never cleared,” he noted, in a reminder that presidential politics is little more than organized chaos. He then reminded Kennedy that the greatest resource he had wasn’t the best organization but the “respect and trust of the American people.”

This is something Donald Trump doesn’t possess – a reality that makes all the unbridled chaos swirling around the Executive Mansion at the moment deeply unsettling to a country that is already deeply divided.

Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?

“I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this. It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk,” noted former President, William Howard Taft. Donald Trump has now successfully turned that on its head. He is the one doing the communicating, often unchecked and frequently unsettling, and we are proving to be the avid listeners. Moreover, like most of us, he too is an addict – hooked on power, his own view of the world, money and a limited view of democracy and its hard-won strengths.

History will no doubt comment on this time in democracy’s history, when average citizens, confronted with ominous challenges like climate change, terrorism, regional conflicts, stubborn poverty and political dysfunction, opted to choose politics as something to be watched instead of rescued through shared responsibility for governance between citizens and their representatives. Democracy is to be characterized by activism, not addiction. The Trump drama is remarkable viewing but is hardly fulsome politics or sound policy. Citizens everywhere will soon enough have to make a choice between the two.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

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