The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: progress

Stillborn Democracy

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This post can also be viewed at National Newswatch here.

HIS ELECTION CAMPAIGN SIGNED UP MILLIONS of new voters, partly by the ingenious use of modern communications technology. Being young and vibrant, it was only a natural development that younger generations flocked to his campaign. He had a telegenic wife and young kids. Rather than following the historic pattern of saying that he and his party were the right prescription to get the country moving again, he asked his nation to believe in itself once more, to build optimism into its future outlook, and to engage itself in a new kind of politics. And he won in a fashion that appeared to usher in a new age of collaboration and political accomplishment.

No, this wasn’t Justin Trudeau but Barack Obama, back in 2008 – a remarkable season when Americans responded to the new president’s call of “Yes We Can” by stating “Yes We Will.” It was a fascinating evolution in politics that wasn’t only historic in its implications, but freeing in its spirit.

What happened? Despite his numerous successes, the Obama momentum stalled not too long after it commenced and never reached its expectations. The obvious reason was that the opposition forces circled the wagons and disrupted the momentum from its inception. Or as Obama operative, David Axelrod pungently put it: “For seven years, the GOP establishment knowingly and cynically rode the anti-Obama tiger, feeding the beast with a steady diet of red meat.”

None of this is new to us; it has been playing out in our newsfeeds since 2009 and the political dysfunction resulted in the chaos we now witness in the Republican primaries. Bill Clinton claimed there was a key but overriding reality that undercut everything else: “We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.” Few observations better describe what is currently running rampant through American politics. People are confused and angry, giving a level of credence to Charles Bukowski’s view that, “The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

The question is whether it’s becoming increasingly true in Canada? Judging by the last few parliamentary sessions, there is cause for some concern. The hyper-partisanship of recent years has made it increasingly difficult to forge a consensus, to achieve compromise, or to take all Canadians into account rather than merely catering to party supporters.

Barack Obama believed he could work across party lines when first elected – an assumption prone to naïveté in hindsight. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be, because the goal of collaboration was rigged from the outset. Democracy and politics ended up being two different things: the one, the will of the people, the other, the wickedness of partisanship.

Trudeau’s recent election win provided intriguing insights into the Canadian mindset. One of the lessons was that, though progressivism was clearly on the upswing as a societal force, opposition remained obstinate. We shouldn’t allow the Liberal’s majority mandate to gloss over the sobering reminder that millions of Canadians voted otherwise. This is democracy, after all, and healthy dissent is a good thing.

Mindful of the political chaos south of the border, Canada could nevertheless run the danger of replicating a form of dysfunctional politics through the use of blinded opposition. We won’t get far as long as citizens or their representatives view compromise of any kind as tantamount to surrender. It is nothing of the kind. It is rather the acknowledgement that the people have voted and there is the responsibility of respecting that reality by contributing to healthy government and a vibrant society. Far from being an option, such compromise is the only way modern societies, with all their complexities, can survive.

The Liberal Party’s electoral victory, sweeping enough to provide a majority, has served to raise the expectations of its friends.  Anti-poverty activists, environmentalists, Indigenous advocates, free traders, researchers, electoral reformers, gender champions – these and so many others will have to temper their euphoria with the understanding that any government must delicately balance the interests of all Canadians in ways that are manageable.

As the recent parliamentary sessions have shown, dysfunctional politics is as near as a government that only rewards its friends, or an opposition that cares only for overthrowing the powers that be through the practice of cheap politics.

Only a few months prior to his assassination, President John Kennedy, mused on the future of democracy, saying, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Opinions are important because they reflect the views of citizens. They are damning when they are spiced with a bigotry that can’t hear or respect contrary views. The success of Trudeau’s mandate, and of democracy itself, will depend on that distinction.

A Strange Case of Hope

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IT SEEMS COUNTERINTUITIVE, BUT IT’S REAL.   Despite the overriding sense that violence and bloodshed have extended their grip of fear globally, statistics reveal we have never been closer to establishing international peace. Despite the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the terror that is ISIS, and the bloodshed emanating from Syria, the reality is that they stagger us because in fact they are becoming more rare.

Go deeper into the statistics and we discover that tragedies like murder, domestic violence, torture, and capital punishment have been steadily on the decline. Just ask Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, and best-selling author. He wrote a book in 2011, titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he made the following staggering statement: “The decline in violence in the world is the most significant and least appreciated in the history of our species.” This is nothing to sneeze at and provides a needed perspective as we look back over the past year, which Pinker maintains has been one of the most relatively peaceful since the end of the Second World War.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the long downward trend is steadily moving forward. Our problem is, of course, that it doesn’t appear that way. Why is that? Pinker, among others, thinks that the constant follow-up of media following violent events gets us into a mode where we think that world is in trouble. That could very well be on issues like climate change or financial inequality, but violence doesn’t fit into that model.

“Rampage shootings generate a huge amount of media publicity but account for a relatively tiny number of deaths – that’s why they carry them out. Killing a few innocent people at once is the only surefire way to attract publicity for yourself or your cause … The news is a systemically misleading way to understand the world.”

He uses European history as an example, reminding readers that more people were killed by Marxist, nationalist, and secessionist groups in the 1970s and 1980s than have been killed by Islamic militants in the 2000s and 2010s.

There is sense in the research Pinker has compiled, especially after considering war itself as an example. For 500 years, Western European countries started, on average, two new wars a year, but following World War Two there have been none. Most of the conflicts going on around the world in the present age are civil wars and even these are slowly in decline. And we need to remember that World War Two resulted in some 60 million refugees, as opposed to the roughly one million Europe is facing at the moment.

As global citizens we have been through a tough year – terrorism, climate disaster, refugees, economic turbulence, and political decline – and each of these issues are of vital importance. But as we move into 2016 we must take hope where it is offered, and when it comes to human violence, history seems to be on the side of progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it.  This is an important message for the coming year, for nothing troubles us as much as senseless slaughter. But such travesties are in decline. Naturally each new attack threatens our sense of security and vulnerability, but if this coming year continues the trend, we are working our way towards a less violent future, and have been for decades.

For some perspective, take some time to view the following video and the declining death rate in the modern era. Some of the numbers are staggering, while others are hopeful. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” songwriter Leonard Cohen states, and it is true in this case. Perspective is important to progress and 2016 could well see us travelling in the same direction.  We must refrain from overtly fretting over the issues that aren’t as damaging as we think while overlooking those challenges, like climate change, that are, in reality, far more foreboding than we realize.  2016 could prove a pivotal year if we can better discern between the two.

 

It All Comes Down to Cities

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FOLLOWING EXTENSIVE NEGOTIATIONS a deal emerged among 190 countries regarding climate change and the very future of the planet. Almost immediately opinions pro and con erupted in every venue imaginable. The average citizen can be forgiven for experiencing difficulty as to the truth of the summit’s success in Paris this past week.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the climate change response that have been clearly successful, with progressive track records that still spell hope on the file. I speak especially of cities. While the accomplishments on carbon emissions of a number of nations have been mixed, cities around the world opted to act long before the Paris summit. Following the dismal failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, municipal leaders took the initiative when others dropped the ball.

All this is important, since as much as a third of carbon budgets will be determined by decisions that municipalities themselves will make. That is no small thing and while sovereign nations now begin the process of deciphering how to meet the loose targets they committed to, many of their key cities have been moving along that path for years, and decades for some.

Increasingly it appears as though cities will be the staging areas for any great global response to climate change. Think of most great challenges before us – immigration, refugees, the renewal of capitalism, citizen engagement, political reform, and many more – and their chief field of operations will be in our civic centres. It makes sense, not only because of their population density but since they provide the majority of the on the ground services required by citizens.

But there’s more. Research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate reveals that a group comprised of fewer than 500 cities will be responsible for some 60% of global economic growth and 50% of greenhouse gas emission increases in the next 15 years. Cities are already forming the front line in humanity’s struggle with climate change.

It’s now clear what is happening: for nations to develop an effective environmental response, they must undertake the process of following their cities. Again, that makes sense since city mayors have already undertaken over 10,000 climate change actions in recent years.

Yet there is another reason for civic action that is rarely mentioned. Between 2005 and 2013, cities have absorbed the vast majority of refugees. Recent research enforces this reality.

  • Manila (Philippines) presently houses 70,000 refugees.
  • New York city is attempting to support 60,000 – 22,000 of which are children.
  • Mexico City holds 20,000.
  • The cities of India are attempting to resettle some 23 million.
  • San Francisco hosts 10,000 refugees.
  • Rome is challenged by the 70,000 living within its boundaries.

At present, over 100 million people are homeless in our world, the majority of them in our cities. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion exist without adequate housing. These are huge numbers and they are increasing, mostly in our municipalities.

In other words, cities have a vested interest in taking the lead in climate change action for the simple reason that they will be absorbing the terrible consequences of failure. “Cities are the greatest creations of humanity,” says author Daniel Libeskind. They could also be the beach upon which we ultimately perish. More than the Paris summit, our hundreds of cities will determine whether we can submit ourselves to the natural order that sustains us.

Lead by Example or Force: Which is It?

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IN 2003, THE U.S. ARMY SPONSORED a conference in Washington to consider the possibilities of soft power, among other things. When asked by the media what he thought of the insights into soft power that had just been presented, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared a bit miffed and answered, “I don’t know what it means.” That lack of understanding and appreciation of power in its other low-key forms would ultimately contribute to the chaotic nature of the Iraq war.

But, in truth, the lack of knowledge of soft power is part of our problem as well, especially as Canada continues to mull over its role as part of the 65-member coalition fighting ISIS. And when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wanted to help lead and not just merely support efforts to combat terrorism, he raised the bar to a level not many are sure we can reach. Canada has accomplished much in this field before, however, and can do so again.

Rumsfeld equated “soft” power with “weak” power, contributing to the perception that he could only envision the greatest form of power itself as something equated with planes, cruise missiles, bombs, and ground forces on the attack. In retrospect, numerous observers now believe that it was the very absence of soft power that made its harder cousin unworkable and unsustainable.

Soft power is the ability to achieve your goals through providing resources and understanding through the local culture as opposed to just winning a war. It isn’t the opposite of military might but a vital complement to it. It isn’t about attracting others to our values, but the recognition that the enduring values of humanitarianism are found in every culture and must be built upon. Yes, it could well involve building democracy in troubled regions, but it could just as easily entail the understanding that the Muslim faith carries deep and abiding values of human respect that go as far back as our own.

Power is about resources just as much as might. Insightful NGOs (non-governmental organizations), often working with military personnel, have used water as a means of conflict management. Often accomplished by the provision of secure corridors for travel or through equipment providing clean water itself, access to this natural resource often alleviates the tensions that trouble regions, clans, and tribes who normally fight over it.

Fourteen years ago, the NGO my wife and I direct in South Sudan was approached to build a secondary school in the region that would be the only one for 600 kilometres. We agreed to try, but only if a 50/50 student ratio would be honoured between boys and girls (girls were often kept from educational opportunities during that time of war). Negotiations ensued for a lengthy time until at last agreement was reached. In five weeks time we travel to South Sudan to officially open the school and hand it over to the Ministry of Education. They have honoured their commitment, and already the possibility of education for girls is transforming the landscape – something seemingly impossible through the medium of bombs, planes, or tanks.

Canadian troops – women and men – have performed remarkable acts of valour in a troubled world for over a century. But we can never overlook all the Canadian humanitarian efforts, sometimes employing military “soft” resources like the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team). It is these activities, as much as our combat efforts, that have earned Canada’s hard-won reputation as a nation that comprehends the value of soft power.

So will it be hard or soft power for Canada? Some will say that it should be both. Perhaps. But our current prime minister is correct in maintaining that it’s difficult to create peace on the ground if you are a nation that is also pummeling the earth and people with bombs. Gandhi was right, too, when he maintained that, “an eye for an eye only makes the world blind.” A military action might promote even more terrorism if we aren’t careful. Canada’s role can be as equally daring, brave, and innovative as any bombing sortie, merely by helping remove the dire conditions on the ground that create the context for terror itself. We are a brave people, and if we must battle we will. But we prefer to fight with our minds and our collective conditioning for peace – a reality as powerful as any military force on earth.

Looks Like History Didn’t End After All

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ALMOST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IT BECAME a literary sensation. I devoured the book in three days on the coast of Nova Scotia. The premise of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was provocative, if not audacious. He reasoned that it was clear that capitalist democracy has basically beaten back every other form of government and stood pre-eminent over history itself. He viewed history as a winding experimentation of various forms of governance that eventually fended off unworthy contenders to claim democracy itself as the ultimate victor. In that sense, history needed to look no further; it had reached the most free, refined, and prosperous political management system that would likely never be transcended.

Admittedly, it was a heady time. Communism had fallen. American imperialistic democracy appeared unassailable. And capitalism? Globalization was supposedly spreading its prosperity around the world. All looked good; why look for anything better?

Looking back at it now, it all seems so naïve. The attacks of 9/11 brought all that to a screaming halt. Though armed conflicts between official state actors has been in decline for decades, the rise of terrorism and the lack of accountability of non-state actors has made the world seem more dangerous. The Great Recession put the lie to the simplistic belief that capitalism would lead us to some kind of Nirvana. And the impending catastrophic reach of climate change, driven largely by the insane penchant for modernization without the proper understanding of the consequences, might very well bring us to the edge of catastrophe. So, no, history didn’t end up in the ideal, but in a toxic soup of challenges that civilization hardly seems prepared for.

In a real sense history hasn’t changed much at all, but our perception of it clearly has. It’s never been easy and progress has always been excruciating. Democracy is now being challenged by numerous hybrid-like systems of government, such as China’s. Our comfortable Western view of humanity is under assault and our political structures are sagging under the strain. The great consensus between democracy and capitalism is no longer a sure thing.

In a very real way the concepts of both the democratic and capitalist experiments have to be reinvented if they are to endure. A financial system that can make individuals billionaires overnight while leaving billions in grinding poverty over decades can hardly claim legitimacy. And a political system that can’t overcome the huge gap between itself and the citizenry makes it less likely to be trusted. Both systems were meant to provide prosperity and equity for the masses, neither of which has materialized as hoped.

If everyone truly possesses potential and equal dignity, then what are we doing allowing systems that bring us neither? History should have taught us that you can’t sustain a system that gives you everything but kills the planet, but we haven’t learned that reality yet. Refined history informed us that men and women are truly equal, but we still behave as though we didn’t get the memo. It reminded us that any nation carrying too great a gap between rich and poor eventually squanders its prosperity, but we were too busy with our credit cards.

While believing the self-interest is the way ahead, we forgot that without the collective interest nothing is truly achieved.

History isn’t about economics or governance, but ultimately concerns the pursuit of a respectful humanity. Fukuyama told us that the fulfillment of money and politics would make us happy, effectively ending history’s pursuit, but what we have learned is that they have impoverished and isolated us because we forgot that history itself cannot progress without empowered humans themselves. Time to get back to shaping history for all rather than leveraging it for the few.

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