The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

Too Soon Gone

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Image by Getty Images

Read this post in Huffington Post here

LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHERS, I WATCHED in deep sadness the tragedy that befell British MP, Jo Cox – murdered brutally outside her constituency office by a lone assailant. I read the accounts in the news, followed its implications on Britain’s Brexit movement, and just overall felt a deep sadness for her family.

But one image remained with me: Cox’s shoe, lying on its side, even after her body was removed. A powerful woman once filled that shoe. She was no regular political aspirant, but a true believer in the nobility of humanity and its capacity for hope and change. She had spent a decade as a relief worker for Oxfam in both the U.S. and Britain, later transitioning over to fight slavery for Freedom Fund, and landing a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just prior to her entry into politics. Her all too brief record in Parliament was one of tackling leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, and a relentless desire to defend the defenseless.

Jo Cox wasn’t only a bright light in the political firmament, but a testament to those human rights and development workers who come to realize that it’s only through the power of effective legislation that true change can come … and stick. Her world was literally the world, and no Parliament could have been large enough to contain a spirit like hers. In so many ways she had become the antithesis of so many in politics, or as C. G. Jung would put it: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

Yet Cox had one problem, a big one, and it was to lead to her death. She wasn’t merely fearless, but vocal about it. And in a world increasingly encroached upon by hatred, she became an inevitable target. She instinctively understood that she was entering dangerous waters and requested extra security measures when attackers online viciously herded after her. Eventually, following three months of requests, the help was granted, but, sadly, her sudden end would preempt the extra detail.

Our modern world takes a certain delight in trashing politicians – their egos, ambitions, constant compromises, even what we think are their cushy jobs. My personal experience following five years in Parliament is that most politicians are struggling to be relevant and true to their ideals in face of relentless pressures.

One of those challenges is dealing with citizens and groups through social media. It has become an essential step in the relevance of any political representative and the good ones do it well. But as assaulted figures they become the preferred target of the haters, those trolls and anonymous digital attackers what take a particular delight in fulfilling their dream by destroying the noble dreams of others. And so to serve is also to suffer the thousands of arrows heading in a politician’s direction every week. However, the longer social media venues tolerate it, and the law turns a neglectful eye, the more dangerous has the political world become. The moment hateful words remain uncensored, the quicker evil does its diabolical work, for, as author Jerry Spinelli put it, “If you learn to hate one or two persons … you’ll soon hate millions of people.” This was the world Jo Cox’s very courage caused her to enter and the result is not a national but an international tragedy.

Perhaps that why the photo of her empty shoe on the street had such a devastating effect on me – no one would ever fill her shoes again. She was a bright voice in a world of dark voices, silenced by idiocy. Her children and her husband must now navigate a future without her sun on the horizon, and politics must attempt to move on despite the loss of one of its guiding stars. No one can fill her shoes and no one can wipe away our tears.

Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, clearly put the choice before us: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference … And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” The only way Cox’s senseless death can be redeemed is when we, as citizens, purge the hatred from among us by living for same ideals of this one too early gone.

Angry Birds

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“I ENGAGED WITH TWITTER DURING THE LAST FEDERAL ELECTION, as my interest in the party positions grew, but there’s been so much vileness tolerated on that platform that I’ve decided to just delete my account,” a friend from Montreal told me recently.

It’s a sentiment one increasingly encounters, especially among Millennials. Perhaps more serious are those refraining from joining Twitter in the first place as a result of all the well publicized high-profile personal attacks on Twitter in this past year – one of the likely causes of the company’s inability to grow its market share to the degree it had hoped. As former CEO, Dick Costolo put it last year, “We suck at dealing with abuse.”

All of this forms an important lesson for Canada and its politics, still early into a new federal government phase. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had used social media masterfully during the last election campaign, summoning a few million new voters as a result. Others political parties, even Senate members, are engaging along similar lines

Yet the “rules of engagement” with social media for a successful link between citizens and their representatives are still being developed and not all the experience has been hopeful. Twitter especially, once a favoured tool for rapid fire political engagement, has also been the preferred instrument for permitting hatred, racism, and intolerance into what was supposed to be a more positive experience of politics in the public space.

Only a decade ago, the introduction of Twitter, along with Facebook, blogging, and digital comment sections supposedly presented a new, more exciting method for engaging Canadians. There had been the growing belief that traditional institutions were reticent to take such risks and these new forms of communications sprang up in the belief that average people could share their opinions and ideas in the public space. Living with such amenities for the last few years, however, has also introduced us to the understanding that such venues which have few rules for engagement can often sink to the lowest level of participants – trolls, stalkers, haters, even the hyper-partisans. Twitter especially has been embroiled in all the controversy.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As complaints against the company over its permissive abuse policy have mounted, Twitter executives, especially CEO Jack Dorsey, appear less than pro-active when it comes to user complaints regarding abuse. Writing in the New York Times Insider last week, John Weisman reported he just quit Twitter (he had 35,000 followers) as a result of the following note he received from the company: “We are unable to take action given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules.” This was all he received after being attacked for months with anti-Semitic comments, Nazi iconography, photos of the gates of Aushwitz, and worse. Following many requests for action from Twitter, and the rather milquetoast response mentioned above, he pulled the plug. The relationship is over, as it increasingly is for thousands of others.

Within the administration ranks of Twitter there has been a cost as well. The resignation last week of its head of consumer product division, Jeff Seibert, has merely been the latest of such departures. Its four co-founders each pushed one another out, according to Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair. He goes on to list other recent resignations at senior management levels.

Much of the turbulence has been around the company’s underwhelming abuse policies and the growing effect that approach is having on Twitter’s brand. Perhaps the outer rancor is a direct byproduct of the inner management turmoil – Twitter’s own DNA. As Bilton effectively chronicled CEO Dorsey’s stubbornness and sadness over the loss of close friends and co-workers and their refusal to now speak to one another: “It was such a good team. It just became screwy, and confusing. I don’t know what happened. I don’t regret it. I feel sad about it.” Perhaps the inability to feel regret is part of the problem.

The importance of social media to the national political conversation and to politics itself is irrefutable. Yet should the venues of that online dialogue produce more rancor than refinement, more umbrage than understanding, then the opportunity for citizens to have effect on the issues that matter to them will be diminished. Fortunately some online venues are placing more rigor within their comment practices, leaving citizens to engender meaningful exchanges. But as long as huge firms like Twitter remain lax in their accountability policies, the danger to our political estate remains worrisome.

For years we witnessed Ottawa’s Question Period become a source of national embarrassment. If citizens, then, in their efforts at political engagement on social media, participate in disturbing practices far worse than even the House of Commons would condone, then both sides of the democratic equation – citizens and their elected representatives – will equally share blame for the decline of our public estate.

 

Being Real

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THE WHOLE THING DIDN’T GO AS PLANNED. The de facto Republican leader, Donald Trump, was supposed to be an also-ran, largely purged from the primaries by early 2016. For Hilary Clinton and the Democrats, it was supposed to resemble something of a coronation. Yes, there was Bernie Sanders, the elderly statesman from Vermont, but, like Trump, was supposed to be out of the race months ago. As we near the conventions of both parties, each is experiencing an identity crisis of major proportions.

There’s a reason why millions of young people have signed up for the Sander’s campaign. Spotting in him someone who has maintained the ideals of his youth, they see in him as a mentor, a guide into the complex future that surely lies ahead.

The trouble is that the American political establishment, in seeing Sander’s policies as hopelessly naïve, have painted that younger generation with a brush that has turned them against the “politics as usual” camp in droves.

At the root of it all is Sander’s pursuit of a more equitable and just nation. Given the economic and social fallout following the Great Recession, it’s hardly any wonder that citizens are looking for something different, something … fair. To such individuals Sanders appears like the real deal, someone whose entire life was acted out in accordance with the social justice principles he maintains today. Yes, he was thrown into a police paddywagon for demonstrating against racial bigotry decades ago. Yes, when he ran for mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, he was regarded as naïve and simplistic. Yet he won the contest (by a mere 10 votes), going on to win three more elections. But what’s important here wasn’t his popularity but his social victories in a time of almost universal economic restraint elsewhere. The city advanced in affordable housing, progressive taxation, women’s rights, and environmental reforms.

Does that sound like some unrealistic leader? In many ways he has more political experience that most of the people mocking him. While everyone keeps talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, Sander’s record in Burlington left the city with an unemployment rate of 2.6% – lower than any other place in the United States. His record while in office on women’s rights and advancement has been recognized, as was his ability to bring economic renewal to Burlington.

These kinds of accomplishments, as listed in Wikipedia and his website, say something specific about the man: he speaks with experience and accomplishment. And it’s that authenticity, and not just his words, that cause millions to see in him, his grey hair waving around in all directions at his outdoor rallies, as someone who’s actually done what he’s calling on America to do.

Author May Sarton once wrote that, “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” The reality is, of course, that it’s the political establishment, the power brokers, and the financial barons, who label him frightening and strange, not the millions of others who find in Sanders someone with a rugged and transparent authenticity and who respond to him with in commitment, not fear.

Mississippi Senator, Roger Wicker, a Republican, not a Democrat, said of Sanders:

“I learned early on not to be automatically dismissive of a Bernie Sanders initiative or amendment. He’s tenacious and dogged and he has determination, and he not to be underestimated.”

What makes this elder but dynamic statesman so powerful at the moment, however, is not just his experience or courage, but the effect he creates within his listeners. Since when is seeking change a “naïve” quality? Justin Trudeau proved it to be a powerful political dynamic north of the border and Sanders has been battling for the same thing long before our present prime minister was born.

This isn’t a blog post about supporting Bernie Sanders, but about getting “real” people into office and then helping them stay that way. Whether people agree or not, he has kept his character intact and people see through it to a greater world. There probably isn’t a person in Congress right now who wouldn’t give anything to have that level of credibility. Naïve, my foot.

A National Tragedy

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WE ALL COME FROM SOMEPLACE – NOT JUST PHYSICALLY, but emotionally and psychologically. For many, such origins involve pain, sadness, even trauma. Some of them take the inner turmoil and turn it outward, inflicting pain on others as a way of dealing with their own. But others pull that pain inward and become prisoners in their own world.

The latter point is important if we wish to begin to comprehend the recent slate of youth suicides in our aboriginal, metis, and First Nations communities. We watch in horror upon hearing of the suicide pact reach recently in the Attawapiskat First Nation community and confess our utter inability to either comprehend or provide solace in such a situation. Recently in an interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert, spoke directly to this issue of inner trauma:

“There’s a lot of unresolved trauma and unresolved grief and loss. A lot of people in the community are containing their pain and emotions through drugs and alcohol, through disassociating, and sometimes all it takes is one trigger when people are vulnerable.  It could relate to childhood trauma; there’s abuse that occurs, be it physical or sexual.”

For young people especially, that sense of a lack of belonging, of alienation, of being misunderstood can be an awful thing to overcome. And so, in their pain, they attempt to take their own lives – a national tragedy.

This is all just another way of saying that where these troubled individuals and communities come from very much determines how they might see the world. For example, they all, to greater degree or less, have lived under the shadow of Canada’s Indian Act. Enacted in 1876, this Act was to determine how the rest of the country interacted with the indigenous communities, if at all. Here are just a few examples of what it contained according to the Working Effectively With Indigenous Peoples blog:

  • Reserves were instituted and residential schools introduced
  • Given new European names to replace their historic ones
  • Any part of indigenous reserves could be used for anything the government saw fit, such as roads, railroads, waterway diversion, etc.
  • Informed indigenous peoples that they couldn’t form political bodies
  • Forbade communities from speaking their own language
  • Denied women status and forbade any indigenous person from voting

Some of these clauses were amended in the ensuing years, but this is where our original people came from and it has defined them for generations. Any of us brought up under such limitations and outright prejudicial racism would likely have turned inward as well and felt cut off from all that we might value. In such a world, suicide can become a cultural phenomenon, and that just what has transpired in places like Attawapiskat.

When asked his thoughts on systemic racism, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said tersely: “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”

Tough words, but historically accurate. It’s one thing to hold racist tendencies but be unaware of it. It’s another thing altogether, especially in an era of supposed intellectual awareness, to allow such blindness in our own time. We all share the guilt. We must all share in making it right.

What’s a City For?

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THE IMPOSSIBLE OFTEN HAS A KIND OF INTEGRITY which the merely improbable lacks,” wrote Douglas Adams. Sounds great, but what does it mean exactly? For cities and communities, understanding this distinction is pivotal to assessing themselves. It is why the impossible will always hold greater appeal in our lives.

We all know that the things we value most also cost the most – it’s what makes them treasures. Raising children, making marriage work, building a successful business, excelling at the arts, saving the environment, or overcoming mental illness – all of these take effort and loads of it. Why, then, should building a valuable city be any different? If we’re going to go cheap, then we might as well pack it up.

Just ask Rick Cole, city manager in Santa Monica, California, and he’ll tell you that if where you live can’t produce a collective sense of wellbeing or hope in the future then the battle is already lost. There’s a reason why cities are increasingly emerging at the forefront of anything to do with change, like the fields of business, democracy, lifestyle, social justice, equity and equality. It could be because they know they are going to die if they don’t start showing leadership, and quickly.

Cole was educated on all the usual disciplines associated with city management and understands the propensity for bureaucrats to concentrate on limiting crime, zoning, building codes, and property taxes. But, really, are those the reasons we live where we do? Cole is the new breed of city manager who believes that a city must function on the values its citizens possess as opposed to merely managing creature comforts. And so he makes a simple suggestion: start from scratch. Don’t just go along with the decisions constructed by earlier generations, but decipher what it is your collective citizenry values in the moment.

Cole’s enthusiasm on this is infectious, especially to citizens, as when he exudes, “We should be in the business of community wellbeing. What we’re talking about it breathtaking.” You don’t hear city managers talk like that a lot, if ever, because something that’s “breathtaking” usually costs, and bureaucrats and civic politicians alike prefer to dwell in the realm of the “doable” and the “manageable.”

Cole compares cities to institutions that fall into a state of decline simply because they attempted to prolong the same old, same old. All of the efforts and practices that use to work in a functioning city are no longer sufficient, and the quicker cities understand that, the quicker they can begin their renaissance and recovery.

Following Cole’s guidance, Santa Monica took on a huge survey of its inhabitants and quickly discovered that fewer than half got any kind of exercise. Nearly one-third felt they were always in stress. Less than 50% talked to their neighbours. And 40% felt that they didn’t have any voice in their community and that the powers-that-be wouldn’t listen to them anyway. City leaders were stunned. It was an admission that just doing the same things the same way their elders had was now leading to the breakdown of community. It wasn’t about taxes, houses, roads, or material goods; it was about the mental health of the city’s inhabitants, and that would require a city plan unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

Part of the problem was that people were looking for more than what the old management structures could provide and were feeling the strain of underachievement. Citizens were dreaming at the same time their leaders were incrementally managing and it was killing them. They were now looking at Santa Monica the way that a new couple looks at their first home – a place full of life, possibility, a future, and things of value. It had become Cole’s job to lay out a plan to get them there.

The city manager’s plans received a boost when Santa Monica mayor, Tony Vazquez, made the theme of this year’s State of the City speech, “Get Things Done.” And so this California city has embarked on a new direction, one driven by reaching for the things that are of a costlier nature but filled with the stuff dreams are made of.

John Helliwell, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, puts it plainly: “Just to focus on economic growth is to miss critical aspects of human life.” There is the old saying that dreams should be bigger than our fears, and that’s still holds true. But it’s a new era, with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, and perhaps we could also add that the dreams of city dwellers should always be bigger than mere budgets or business plans.

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