The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: power

Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.

 

The Truth is You

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WHEN BILL MOYERS RESIGNED FROM political advising in 1967 in order to become the publisher of Newsday, he offered a frank admission: “When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how near you are to truth.”

He arrived at this conclusion after taking a 13,000-mile bus trip around the country, armed with a notepad and tape recorder, and interviewing average people across the United States. What he discovered in that odyssey convinced him that politics and citizens were careening along ever-widening paths. He learned that citizens were quickly losing trust in politics to answer their most basic problems and that politics itself, as an institution, couldn’t really have cared.

Then he set about to interview many leaders of society who tacitly agreed with that assessment. “All these people share the conviction that news is what’s hidden. Everything else is publicity,” Moyers stated. Instinctively, we know this to be true. In fact, we’re almost 100% certain.

While traditional media largely continues its coverage of institutional spokespeople, non-traditional venues have sought another path, looking outside of established means to gain their story. Sadly, and in both cases, the real news gets suppressed amidst all the coverage.

Before she became an American senator, Elizabeth Warren had been placed in charge of a blue ribbon panel assigned with getting to the real truth about the financial bailouts given by the government to the largest lending institutions during the financial meltdown in 2008-09. She was already a seasoned pro at understanding the disappointment of modern politics, but even she wasn’t prepared for what she unearthed. She calls it the “BS Meter” and the title is suitable. In her book, A Fighting Chance, she tells of when her committee met with the second-in-command of the U.S. Treasury. When she asked him directly if the government was still bailing out the large banks with huge sums, he looked directly at her and said, “No, that has now ended.” Yet a few hours later her committee was shocked while watching the news to learn that a special government bill had just been announced that offered a further $800 billion bailout of the key banks. BS Meter indeed.

Meanwhile, from non-traditional media sources we have been hearing of a new economic order about to descend, in which each person will have their own start-up, their own brand, and control their own destiny through selling into digitally enabled markets. The problem is that we know already that it can’t be true, even for most people. We hear daily of how large companies have every intention of remaining profit-maximiers and that most consumers will play along. Unemployment will remain stubbornly high as a result, and government programs meant to help people transition through the emerging economy are being slashed.

Either way, the real truth behind the coverage is being ignored. And that truth is you … and me. Real people, despite all their creativity and resourcefulness, saw all their savings lost in the sub-prime mortgage scandal during Warren’s tenure on the committee. At one point, a family was going bankrupt on average of one every six minutes – 16 million families altogether in one year. And how did their government respond to this development? Simply by blaming such families for being poor savers and greedy consumers. The real reasons for bankruptcies were eclipsed by the blame game.

We all know the numbers. We are fully aware of the precarious nature of the middle-class. We know that significant numbers of Canadians are either unemployed or underemployed.

But it’s worse than that. Polls tell us that a large percentage of Canadians don’t feel that any political party will defy the moneyed interests enough to restore the equitable financial health of the country. An increasing number of citizens no longer rely on the promises of election campaigns because … well, let’s just say they’ve learned their lesson.

In such a setting, the comment by Moyers concerning truth and power carries a troubling fact: the closer one gets to power, the farther they can journey from the truth. We, average citizens, are that truth – not ultimate, but perceptive truth. We know of the rise in food bank numbers, the proposed procurement of sophisticated fighter jets that don’t work, the meteoric rise of the financial elite over the everyday working person, the politicians that seem increasingly isolated, the decline in our roads, sewers, and other infrastructure, the higher costs of post-secondary education, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and the fact that the savings from government program cuts will simply go to reduce taxes for the rich. We know it all, but have no way of getting out of our predicament.

We keep being told that the free market is benign and largely neutral on economic issues, yet our experience tells us that some individuals and large organizations have such powerful influence that the decisions that benefit them adversely affect the rest of us.

This is the news that remains hidden while we grow swamped with spurious advertising and self-serving publicity. It remains hidden because no one believes it will be dealt with under our present economic/political system.  It won’t be fixed until we show up in sufficient numbers to demand truthful communication. And it will remain broken if we leave power untouched and unchallenged.

Mayors: A Culture of Respect

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WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MAYOR WHO ACTUALLY FIGHTS against senior levels of government in order to get a fair deal for a city? Palermo, Sicily, has just such a champion and his efforts are showing effect.

Leoluca Orlando began years ago by rescuing Palermo from the clutches of the Mafia at great risk to himself and his family – death threats were common. In fact, it was so bad that the local media labeled him “the walking corpse,” in anticipation of his assassination. Nevertheless he prevailed, reforming portions of the national justice system in the process.

He then undertook what he called the “second wheel” of his platform – engaging and empowering the citizenry of the city to organize and move forward with attempts at change. The defeat of Mafia control made it possible for average citizens to step up without fear. The next few years came to be known as the Palermo Spring – a time when the local and rich culture bloomed and introduced new creativity. As mayor, he believed that the only places where people were truly equal despite their level of wealth were civic and public spaces, and so he used them to inspire local citizens and turn them into civic champions. Orlando even gave it a brand: “culture of respect.”

Like most mayors he’s a multi-tasker. His efforts to promote urban democracy have seen him create some success in replacing partisan battles with multi-partisan cooperation – quite a feat. This was where he came up against senior levels of government more interested in party allegiances than policy that would actually work for his city. He used his background as a writer, actor, and civic organizer to build a momentum among citizens that forced the national and regional governments to make the changes required to give Palermo a chance at a new future of prosperity, openness and inclusion. He claims that all he really is looking for is “the civic renewal of his city,” and for that he needs citizens who believe they can lead that change.

It is one thing to overthrow the mafia, but his greatest accomplishment will be in how he got his city to believe in itself, despite its history of being at the lower end of the political totem pole. And for this he has received numerous awards from around the world, including the Human Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers.

Like other mayors, he repeatedly claims to love his city. But such words can remain merely a sentiment. Orlando has gone on to prove that love by giving his fellow citizens an open and working relationship to build their city together with him.

Politics has changed and the type of mayors we choose must change as well. Regardless of their platform, mayors that are finding success are doing so on the realization that power shared has greater chance than power monopolized.  Head elected officials like Orlando are in the process of designing a new kind of citizen architecture – the framework of a new democratic exercise in which citizens discover common purpose in the process of turning their cities into breathing, organic entities.  Any mayor or mayoralty candidate who claims to exclusively have a “plan” with which he or she will lead their city is a throwback to the past.  The only visions that can succeed and last are now those that are shared.  Everything else is just the same-old, same-old.

Blood Purple

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“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein

WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.

And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.

I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.

No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.

I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own.  Our veins would flow purple.

But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?

The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.

I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.

If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.

High Noon

MPW-17611I was fortunate enough this past week to have received numerous emails from Kellogg’s employees, thanking me for some recent posts.  A theme from these messages began to emerge.  People wanted to explore some of the ideas about how our current economic/political/social system is no longer sustainable.  I think they hit on the crowning struggle and question of our age.

Things are coming to a head – perhaps not this year or next, but soon.  It’s like the Gary Cooper movie High Noon, when the solitary figure of a man determined to do right and protect his community goes up against a number of individuals determined to undo his value system.  Today, democracy is squaring off against the forces of a capitalism that has, perhaps besides its best intentions, begun to undo the very human capital it once so much depended upon.  To date, it has had its way in many of our communities, but as its deteriorating effects become more obvious, as with a situation like the Kellogg’s plant, a democratic backlash is emerging.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise.  Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation.  Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling.  Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings.  In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring – power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

In any good society, the greatest interactions are played out by non-profit organizations, neighbourhoods, civic celebrations, citizen encounters, houses of worship, local coffee shops, clubs, groups and a myriad of places where traction is gained for the broader community.  These are the things that provide those places where we live with their life-giving energies.  Vaclav Havel might as well have been talking about London, Ontario:

After all our upheavals, it is time for goodwill, tolerance, decency, interest in others, faith in the good in humanity, respect for our neighbor, natural responsibility, modesty, and an amicable view of the world to return to our social climate.  The more successfully this is done, the better we will all live.”

In so many of our communities these are the very things that are under threat, as neither politics nor capitalism can produce them.  In reality, together they are resulting in the opposite.  Only a rediscovered civil society can save us.

But those attempting to build that society have some sincere questions that, while many will question their validity, are rising to the forefront in citizen consciousness.  In their way, the questions are simple.  The importance right now is not the answer, but the very fact they are increasingly being raised.

  • Why can’t communities recall their political representatives who behave badly or put the party before their constituents?
  • If capitalist elites are stripping wealth from our communities while still using our roads, banks, universities, airports, security measures, and natural wonders, should they be brought back into the social compact that worked for decades?
  • If corporate taxes continue to decline, how can our communities possibly maintain the living style they took years to establish?
  • Why are politicians permitted to govern when they have already confessed to crimes?

What is interesting about questions like these is that they are being asked everywhere around the globe – the supposed capitalist domain.  Everywhere it has ventured and enriched itself, questions such as these are being left in its wake.  And from them have come certain theories that are gaining increasing traction.  Why can’t a global tax be placed on those global transactions that remove wealth from one country to another that will help to reimburse the communities they have left somehow depreciated?  What if citizens practiced civil disobedience to reveal their displeasure with a political class that seems as inept and it is remote?  If large businesses get public funds to expand their efforts, why not charge them a service fee for using a community’s infrastructure?

Look, these are questions that many will object to and attempt to refute, but the reality is that citizens and communities are asking them increasingly – Kellogg’s employees are asking them everyday.  Such queries are being brought forth because of the very inability of politics or commerce to reverse our slide.  Corporate barons and economists alike might belittle them, but such challenges are beginning to keep pace with corporate profits.

If the economic reforms of the past three decades are not matched by the increasing capacities of civil society, our lives will inevitably become one-dimensional, caricatures of themselves, and will result in an apathy towards public affairs – much like we have now.

We must rebuild a system in which words, kind deeds, responsible business, and responsive politics can shake the very structure of the elites and where words themselves can become more powerful and transcendent than capitalism’s call to our baser selves and the penchant for politics to turn us away from the public space. 

What took place at Kellogg’s this past week is just another step bringing our communities into a showdown with capitalist forces gone astray.  And such power will not prevail as long as citizens openly ask such questions.

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