The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

Outside the Lines

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Read this post on National Newswatch here

When Ben Hur was launched as a stage play in 1899 it became an immediate sensation. Stagehands were hired to shake tarps to make the background set look like waves, while others rocked the fighting ships back and forth in an effort to make it look realistic. A year of preparation went into the production, with the highlight being the chariot race in the grand arena. People had been practicing for months – the white horses leading Ben Hur and the black steeds powering his enemy Masala’s chariot. Then something went wrong behind the scenes, with the result that Masala won the contest – a conclusion that threw the plot, and the rest of the evening, into disarray.

I thought of that story repeatedly in these past few weeks as so much in politics failed to finish as planned. We weren’t supposed to end up in this place and it appears the political elites have lost considerable control of the political process in a number of countries. The politics of Europe and America now share an equal dose of uncertainty and perhaps danger.

This week’s Republican convention reminds us again that standard politics is no longer a sure thing. For an entire year the Republican Party proceeded as though Donald Trump was a novelty, an also-ran, who would surely bring lots of attention but never be a serious candidate. All that party machinery! All that preparation! All that fundraising to get support for the major candidates! And then the publicity stunt candidate triumphs.

This American campaign is one for the ages, whether people like it or not. But after all the analysis is done, with pundits ad nauseam picking apart the entrails, one key reason stands out as to why Donald Trump achieved what he did: the voter. It was supposed to be the usual kind of campaign that affirms democracy still works by selecting from the choices the political class provides. The problem is that the billionaire wasn’t the figure either the party apparatus or even the media initially preferred to be crowned. On the flip side, in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders was pulling off a similar kind of revolution that to this day carries momentum even following Hillary Clinton’s clinched nomination and the endorsement of Sanders.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump prevailed because he garnered too much support to deny him the prize. This isn’t the year of Trump, but the year of the voter – perhaps more so than even Obama’s remarkable run in the 2008 election.

And now we have Brexit and all the chaos that will go on for months, likely years. With both France and Germany going to the polls next year, the jury is out as to the overall result. In order to achieve his last election victory, British PM David Cameron rolled the dice and promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, likely sure he could control the political process. Except he couldn’t, and now a political Pandora’s Box has been completely kicked over.

It remains tempting to talk about the major personalities in all this bedlam as the collective reason for the unpredictability, but in a very real sense this has been about troubled citizens, not their ultimate leadership choices. Something seismic is clearly going on and its impact is changing so many preset ideas regarding our politics.

The era of political pandering by parties to voters while at the same time ignoring the global challenges citizens face and the values they hold dear is seemingly coming to an end – citizens don’t believe the hype anymore. Readily assuming that political elites no longer understand the profound challenges faced by the electorate, voters are colouring outside the lines and opting for choices that are no longer the safe ones – something Abraham Lincoln deciphered over 150 years ago, as noted by strategist Ariel Moutsatsos:

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

None of this means, of course, that voters have voted objectively, but they have shown the political classes in their respective countries that they’re tired of being duped and want in. The great danger is that their stretch for a collective voice might unleash dominoes of great uncertainty. If in their arrogance the political managers created winds of change, voters themselves must be somber and diligent lest they reap the whirlwind.

Shaken, But Not Stirred

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I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

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.

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