The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

2016: The End of History – As We Knew It

This post can be viewed as a National Newswatch column here.

Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man emerged in 1992 – a well-crafted reasoning as to why liberal democracy of the Western variety had become the greatest form of human government. Though a fascinating read, for many who had travelled extensively there was the sense that the author’s predictions weren’t matching what was occurring in the developing world. In those regions, politics and globalization were taking unusual twists and turns of a highly unpredictable nature. Ultimately, The End of History, though a well-meaning offering, just wasn’t in-sync with humanity’s complexity.

It has taken a few decades to understand that liberal democracy itself is hardly as vibrant or dominant as we once believed, and it’s likely that 2016 was the year where we began to seriously doubt our own confidence in the financial and political systems of our present era. In reality, the previously more stable countries around the globe are falling into crisis. Canada is enjoying relative stability, but one shouldn’t presume it’s guaranteed. That will depend on us.

It’s a tough time to be a politician. Voters are looking to their elected leaders to deal effectively with growing inequality, stagnating living standards, unemployment and underemployment, surging immigration, vigilante terrorism, climate change, and the lack of effective social policies. That’s a lot, and we are quickly reaching the stage where we wonder if our leaders can actually deliver on what we expect. It’s a crisis of governance to be sure, but it is impacting democracy itself in unpredictable ways.

Wasn’t globalization and the reformatting of the world economy supposed to benefit those liberal democracies best suited to take advantage of investments and innovation? Instead we are witnessing the shift of power and influence from the developed to the developing world. In Western democracies, the safe path of progress no longer instills a sense of trust. We still have countless economic and political advantages in the West, but the competition from across the globe is now fierce. Nothing is sure any longer, and if any time in recent history taught us that truth it was 2016.

Whether we think of it or not, the inroads of modern technology and the emergence of billions of new low-wage workers into the global economy have placed us in the predicament of having far more capacity than we do demand, and in the process the average Western worker is being squeezed or made redundant altogether. To a significant degree, the pain felt in this grip helped to propel Donald Trump to victory.

The feeling of disconnectedness among citizens is tearing apart our historic sense of order and institutional progress. The advent of social media has meant that nothing is for sure anymore. It has proved largely successful at driving voters into verbally armed camps of ideology as opposed to better equipping them for integrated debate and consensus. What could have been an effective revolution of ideas and innovation has descended instead into a maelstrom of barbs, attacks, and hate speech. No one partaking of social media in these past 12 months could remain ignorant of this trend.

The last year has also felt the rumbles of nation states no longer willing to play ball with the traditional global patterns of getting along. Russia, Syria, Iran, numerous European nations, China, and even Israel in its recent war of words with the U.S., are in the process of expanding their reach in ways that break standard global protocols. It’s not just terrorist organizations that flaunt international norms; now entire nation states are flirting with the practice. 2016 was the Year of the Rogue.

It seems tragic that in the face of such imposing challenges the divisions in Western societies are exacerbated by dysfunction in both the partisanship of politics and the separations within the citizenry. These are times when our attentions must be focused on overcoming our differences by identifying our commonalities.

One thing is for certain: leaders can no longer proceed in their various agendas without the support of citizens. It is no longer enough to engage only during election seasons. Populism has risen so quickly, and with such turbulence, that established political orders around the globe have been served notice – power is no longer the playground of the privileged. If by the end of 2017 elected officials fail to mobilize power and finance for the betterment of average citizens instead of the wealthy or the political parties, then history itself will transform into something no one can fully predict. So far, it is difficult to feel assured.

Years ago political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote of a “third wave” of democracy that would spring up around the world, driven in large part by grassroots populism. Since the 1970s, the number of electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, went from 45 to over 123 of the 192 countries today. Democracy is everywhere, but it’s more like turbulent cauldron than any kind of organized movement among the citizens of the world. Neither political nor financial leaders have yet shown the capacity to collectively shape these movements. 2017 might well be their final chance before the dam breaks, ushering in a different world.

Sleeves Rolled Up

IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS ANY INDICATION, 2016’s end couldn’t come quickly enough. Somehow the last 12 months have left millions with the compelling urge to turn the page and get on with something better.

It’s not difficult to understand why this angst seems so universal. It has been a year of significant challenges and disappointments. Political turbulence, economic stagnation, the frustrations of the middle class, environmental decline — this list could just go on and on with issues that are striking insecurity into the hearts of citizens and leaders alike.

A clue to what was happening occurred partway through 2016 when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks claimed, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” It’s that (at times, toxic) urgency that has added fuel to numerous conflagrations around the globe and prompted people to look back at 2016 as a dark period, despite its numerous bright moments.

Perhaps no other year in recent memory has carried such foreboding undercurrents as what we have just endured. Many wonder whether civilization itself has pivoted towards its own demise in the past 12 months, while others fret that the collective belief in democracy, equality, God, fairness and progress might have been misplaced. The passing of numerous celebrity icons in past months has only added to the sense of gloom.

If there was ever a time for a universal sense of hope to make an appearance, now, on the eve of 2017, would be a good time — or as Alfred Lloyd Tennyson put it, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘it will be happier.’”

Yet if hope is to accomplish its difficult task it will require the hands of the many and not just the manipulations of the few.

“Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.”

Hope is not just an aspiration, but a driving force of nature that takes on the world with a sense of determination, daring to take another chance at getting things right. It’s no mere pious virtue that lures people into its aura in peace and solitude, but a compelling urge to remove those obstacles that keep us from a brighter future. It is the pitting of ourselves against the worst aspects of humanity and believing that we’ll prevail. Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.

We have come to one of those turning points in history that will define our future for the better or the worse. Yet there is one key difference — the rise of populism. Across the world, the voices of common people are railing against the power of those of have enjoyed the privileges of their wealth and excess at the expense of others.

But populism can easily become a force for destruction that permits its individual anger to overpower the need for mutual respect and collective collaboration. The rise of the common person is now a global reality, but it must demonstrate the very willingness to understand and provide for others and the planet that our global leaders have so far failed to bring

It is now up to citizens, perhaps more than it has ever been, and we are making that reality increasingly clear to those that govern us. But we must learn to cooperate with our elected representatives in a fashion that diffuses power in equitable fashion. This past year, while giving rise to such a concept, has so far pitted citizens more against each other than fighting the obstacles that threaten our very survival. This is what we must turn around in 2017.

This year ends with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series proved iconic to an entire generation. Though her role in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One lasts less than a minute, her utterance of the last word in the movie serves to remind us that it’s only after endless sacrifice and a sense of collective purpose that such a word could be uttered with any form of confidence.

“Hope,” she says before the credits roll — a fitting conclusion near the end of a troubling year and prior to another 12 months of opportunity to get things right.

Food Insecure Canada

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IT’S THANKSGIVING WEEK AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY food banks will be holding special food drives to help stock their supplies. For most, the challenges are high. At the London Food Bank, for instance, the demand has gone up 12% over the first eight months of this year over the same time last year. Many of the food banks are seeing their donations in both money and food decline in recent years, even as demand remains high.

All this just means that food security all across Canada remain a precarious thing. Canadians should have access to enough nutritious and safe food to ensure a healthy lifestyle. More than that, they should also be assured of a secure food system that gets quality and affordable food from field to table. The United Nations proclaims this access should be a universal right, but around the world governments and their people are having a tough time of it living up to such an ideal.

It’s troubling, for instance, when we hear from the Conference Board of Canada that 7.7% of Canadian households are “food insecure” – approximately 1.92 million people. That’s more than the population of Montreal. We all know instinctively that a poor diet for kids or adults leads to string of related problems, from diabetes to heart disease, and from poor attention spans to mental health disorders. Psychologically, being food insecure brings on depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and, tragically, entertaining thoughts about suicide.

And what of Canadian children in such situations? Currently, 228,500 kids aged 12 to 17 live in food-insecure dwellings. Aboriginal communities are especially challenged by food insecurity for younger generations.

A troubling finding is that food insecurity in households with children is 9.7%, in comparison with households without children (6.8%). The prevalence of food insecurity among households led by female lone parents is 25% – two times greater than among households led by male lone parents (11.2%), and four times that of households led by couples (6.3%).

Why are so many households food insecure? The reasons are many, beginning with incomes too low to afford the essentials of life. Stubbornly high unemployment, under-employment, or poor pay make affording quality food problematic. In addition to income are the high costs of food and non-food essentials. Geographic isolation, especially among Canada’s indigenous communities, makes access to quality foodstuffs difficult. Food illiteracy also has a lot to do with families being undernourished. Proper education around the preparation of foods remains one of the key building blocks for food security. And without access to transportation, at-risk families resort to places like convenience stores, which are woefully underequipped to provide proper nutrition.

It’s likely this is all known by those who read these words. What is less sure is what is occurring to tackle such problems. On this front is reason for some hope, especially at community levels. Food is bringing cities, town, and rural areas together in levels heretofore unseen. Urban gardens, community gardens, collective kitchens, and so many other initiatives are occurring in numbers sufficient to shift the policy preferences of governments. On a deeper scale, there has been a surge in food policy councils, farmer’s markets, food hubs, locally procured food supplies, and rural-urban cooperation mechanisms – initiatives that move food beyond simple charity models and towards a more secure food system overall. And nationally there is a growing movement to press the federal government to adopt a national food strategy.

Will these cumulatively be enough? Not likely. It’s a step to the next level, but to truly battle food insecurity in this country a confluence of initiatives must take place that will form a truly integrated, healthy, and secure food system.

Rises in food literacy, increased supplying of isolated regions, a national school nutrition program, affordable transportation access for low-income families – these and much more must be undertaken if we as a nation are to succeed. Ultimately there will have to occur a comprehensive collaboration between all three levels of government, the food industry, farmers, health departments, research, restaurants associations, and citizen action groups, for any effort to be truly successful.

Global hunger is one of our greatest challenges. To understand its scope, consider this observation from Paul Polman:

“Imagine all the food mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years. Now consider that we need to produce that same amount again — but in just the next 40 years if we are to feed our growing and hungry world.”

But we will never collectively get to such a level until we learn to solve food insecurity in our own communities and across our country. Food insecurity is best defeated by steps and not mere good intentions. We’re not winning that battle at present, which is why food banks are so busy this week. Start there by donating, and then let’s move forward.

A House Divided

Republican Presidential Candidate and Businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a rally in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA, USA, 18 February 2016. The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is 20 February 2016. ANSA/RICHARD ELLIS Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in a Breaking Down Barriers town hall campaign event at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, USA, 24 February 2016. The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary is 27 February 2016. ANSA/ERIK S. LESSER

Read this post on Huffington Post here

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up … Now some of these folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not Americans.”

What are we to do think of this? Is it even right? When Hillary Clinton stated this on a campaign stop, she was sick, clearly fatigued, and likely fed up with all spiteful rhetoric coming from the other side. We get that. But one wonders if it’s ever a good thing when a candidate, especially for president, to speak about voters in such toxic words – even claiming some aren’t Americans. It’s not because the customer is always right, it’s just that the voting citizen is usually holding the power to decide who wins in such a vital campaign.

But there’s a larger story and it’s a global one. As politics in the affluent West continues to flatten out and lose its lustre and support from average citizens, people become divided, sometimes to the extremes. Gender inequality, poverty, immigration, refugees, austerity economics – these and much more are pressing voters in countries around the world closer to margins of intolerance and it gets us to some things unthinkable a generation ago. Normally tolerant people are getting frustrated with the inability of their political leaders to ease the tension points of modern life.

Millions, for good or ill, might be fascinated by Donald Trump, but the fissures dividing the various populations across the European continent show the extremes all this can lead to. In places like Austria, France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Italy, and Finland, right-wing nationalism is on the rise as growing disillusion with the European Union, millions of refugees, and sluggish economies induce normally centrist nations to veer to the right.

Such movements, spread across a large number of nations, have caused many to wonder if Europe’s progressive tolerance is sliding back into a more extreme age. It certainly appears that way, and as the number of European elections is played out in these next two years that sentiment might actually be confirmed in troubling terms. Normally liberalized populations appear tired of affirming that certain liberties must be placed aside for the common good. Right now they are seeing nothing common or good in what is going on and their voting priorities are shifting, at least temporarily.

In many of these countries, the intolerance was speeded up by spokespeople from the status quo “tolerance” camp and their denunciations of many of their citizens as xenophobes, Islamophobes, homophobes – in short, the language Hillary Clinton used in her campaign speech. When civilized society feels okay about demonizing others in the name of tolerance, you have a problem that doesn’t necessarily require Donald Trump to become president to alienate much of the population. When the politics of resentment comes from the Left, the Right, and even the Centre, the road to democratic decline appears like an open freeway.

The current politics of labeling and resentment is dangerously coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Citizens themselves will hold hard to opinions across that spectrum as well and this must be respected. But what we require is a context where our differences are discussed with respect and a sense of compromise. Donald Trump has delighted in blowing that pretense out of the water. Making alienated people even angrier is his modus operandi, but it’s a foolish game to utilize similar techniques on the opposing side. Many Democrats and Independents are feeling isolated, too, but the majority are progressive in their leanings and should those they look to for leadership dumb down the conversation into heated name calling, not of the opposing candidates, but citizens themselves, then the fight for a common place of respect is finished. That will be true in coffee shops or in Congress itself, as we have seen in recent years.

Even if Hillary Clinton was right in her definition of Trump’s followers, she was wrong to exacerbate tensions already at a boiling point. America can’t be a light to the world if it continues to present itself as a divided house falling into civic darkness. Since both Clinton and Trump speak frequently of how they respect Abraham Lincoln, they should hearken to his words: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

 

As the World Moves

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Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN CANADA, THERE IS FREQUENTLY THE SENSE that the refugees brought into the country in the last year posed not only a challenge but a kind of calling card to the world of why we still remain such a compassionate land. We feel good about what we’ve done. The disruption of thousands of Syrians families into our communities has been slight compared to the sense of inclusion and accomplishment the challenge created for us.

Yet all this can provide a rather rosy sense of the refugee problem that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world. It has been reported that there are more displaced people and families in the world than at any time since the Second World War. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) came out with new data revealing that we have already exceeded the refugee fallout from that great conflict – 65.3 million, or one out of every 113 people on the planet. As imposing as that is, it also represents a 5.8 million increase over last year. Here are some revealing statistics from the findings:

  • The population of displaced people around the world now exceeds the entire population of the United Kingdom
  • If the total number of displaced formed a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world
  • 24 people are being displaced every minute
  • over half the refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia
  • Up until now, Turkey has played host to more refugees than any other nation
  • Among the great number of refugees, 100,000 are unaccompanied children

So, yes, outside of climate change, the refugee dilemma in the most serious of modern times, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it is the affluent West that is taking on the greatest load. As the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York reminded us recently, it is the poorer nations, not the wealthy ones that are bearing the brunt of the phenomenon. That makes sense when we consider the political thunderclouds in France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and now Turkey, as a result of its recent coup, that has now created a strong backlash against immigrants and refugees. The relative peace in Canada aside, the age of relatively compassionate democracy seems more on its way out than expanding.

All this leaves the poorer parts of the globe to deal with the refugee fallout. As York reminds us, 86% of all refugees are being sheltered in poor and developing nations. Five of the ten largest hosts of refugees were from sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of challenges to the national economy, those bearing the greatest burden are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Kenya. In Lebanon, 183 of every 1,000 people are refugees.

Canada was rightfully mentioned in the UNHCR report as a world leader in generosity towards refugees – second only to the United States. In the past year, we have accepted 20,000 refugees, while the U.S. took in 66,500. The problem is that no matter how great our collective and individual generosity, the world itself is fraying at the edges and more refugees are being created every year than can possibly be managed, sheltered, and empowered.

Of all the intense risks the Western political order is facing – irrelevancy, gap between rich and poor, climate change, the inherent flaws in globalization, political dysfunction – it could well be that it is the manic creation of refugees that could succeed in destroying it when war, poverty, and racism couldn’t.

The solution to this most pressing human problem of the modern era is not more generosity alone, but a rising global movement of social equity, female empowerment, and political pluralism that together can bring about solutions in those troubled nations from which today’s refugees are forced to flee. It is a cause worthy of Canada’s leadership role in the world, but it will require a united army of compassionate nations even greater than that assembled in World War Two.

“The story of humanity is essentially the story of human movement,” writes author Patrick Kingsley in his The New Odyssey. Right now our human story is rumbling about in some dark chapters. This could well be the moment for Canada, as a softer, more tolerant nation and protected on three sides of its boundaries, to capture the world’s attention by building a global consensus to bring a troubled world back from the brink of destructive human fallout.

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