The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: truth

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.

An Empty Spot On the Bench

TV Bill Moyers Journal

WHEN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATES FOR DEMOCRACY ultimately leave the stage through retirement or death, it’s not always true that their absence is noted. Lose a Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or a Maya Angelou and almost immediately the tributes and stories flood the airwaves. Yet every year we lose many of democracy’s greatest champions without even knowing it, often not even recognizing their names. A candle goes out and we merely transfer our interests to another.

The voice of Bill Moyers finally went silent on PBS news stations a few weeks ago, leaving a significant vacancy in our overall struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. Moyers was sage, highly knowledgable, and intensely courageous for those things he devoutly espoused. Some regarded him as a throwback to the past days of journalism, where truth mattered more than mere opinion, and depth of research took precedent over Google. But time is revealing that such a journalistic practice wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world of instant opinions and shallow coverage. Moyers had a way of relentlessly reaching for that better part of our minds that related news with value instead of sensationalism and inspired images in our brains that were planted there by reason as opposed to hyperbole.

He commenced his odyssey with PBS in 1971 and immediately reflected gravitas in a world of rapidly changing media coverage. From that point on he was pressured relentlessly to move his programming instincts to the right of the political spectrum. Each time he refused, not because of personal bias but through his reasoning that the average listener wasn’t so much a partisan as a reasoning individual looking for an objective voice in a turbulent world. And he gave it to them, travelling to countless communities across the country to speak with average people and organizations, giving them a voice as the political and financial elites quietly retreated in their newfound opulence.

Moyers could do it all – eloquent speaker, gifted writer, broadcaster, documentarian, journalist and magazine contributor. It’s not as though the media industry hasn’t taken account of him. He has won 35 Emmy awards (including a lifetime achievement Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, is an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, and numerous others. He accomplished all this by reaching the country through public television, with a venue far smaller than the major networks.

Everyday he reminded citizens that major issues like climate change, unemployment, financial injustice, political ineffectiveness, and global challenges, are important enough for them to keep themselves focused. As he put it recently:

“Ninety-six percent of people believe its important that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91% think it’s not likely that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what’s right to do yet don’t think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democratic ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game’s almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.”

Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren, and like that eloquent woman Senator, Moyers concedes that, “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” There have been many lovers of democracy who have been people of conscience, but Moyers has done it all with personal dignity, a healthy respect for institutions and the individual citizen, and a deep understanding that having an opinion isn’t the same thing as wielding truth.

Our next post will explore how our democratic landscape is changing as the voices of objectivity, respect, and reason slowly move off the scene. The disappearance of Moyers from the public airwaves comes at a time when that voice of veterans and nation builders that flourished following the Second World War pass off everyday one by one, leaving significant holes in our citizenry and our journalism. Those of us who remain surely possess passionate beliefs like those who have preceded us, but do we have the patience, the tolerance, the respect, and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? Who are the next Bill Moyers? And will they come forward?

The Appearance of Evil

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Yesterday we spoke of the distinctions between law and policy and how citizens must develop healthy opposition to both when they are either unjust (law) or ineffective (policy).

We shouldn’t just assume that law itself is only interested in rock solid evidence or historical precedent.  There are times when the legal establishment gives a judgment that provides great insight into how we should behave.  This is especially true for office holders and their responsibilities.

A few years ago, Supreme Court of Canada justices made some revealing comments concerning how politicians are supposed to behave.  It was about a case in Newfoundland, where a politician put his wife on the payroll and then sought to continue on as though all was normal.  Something like this isn’t new, but the Supreme Court response brought a remarkable amount of clarity into the murky world of politics.  One of the justices stated in his conclusion:

There must be a preserving the appearance of integrity, and the fact that the government is fairly dispensing justice, are, in this context, as important as the fact that the government possesses actual integrity and dispenses actual justice.  The two concepts are, however, analytically distinct.  For a government, actual integrity is achieved when its employees remain free of any type of corruption.  On the other hand, it is not necessary for a corrupt practice to take place in order for the appearance of integrity to be harmed.  Protecting these appearances is more than a trivial concern.  This section recognizes that the democratic process can be harmed just as easily by the appearance of impropriety as with actual impropriety itself.

In my view, given the heavy trust and responsibility taken on by the holding of a public office or employ, it is appropriate that government officials are correspondingly held to codes of conduct which, for an ordinary person, would be quite severe.   For the public, who is the ultimate beneficiary of honest government, it is not so easy to sort out which benefits are legitimate and which are laden with a sinister motivation.  Moreover, it is inefficient for a government to be paralyzed by rumour and innuendo while an inquiry is made into the motivation behind a certain benefit or advantage conferred on an official. 

Currently, and in various jurisdictions, numerous governments are “paralyzed by rumour and innuendo.”  The requirement to hold politicians to higher standards when they don’t do it themselves is the absolute responsibility of citizens, and it isn’t easy.  The problem is not only when laws are broken, but when their very spirit is maligned.  The moment we accept such a state, then written laws can never protect us from deceptive power.  We live in such an age, but it doesn’t mean we have to accept it.  There are many good politicians and civil servants who live by the letter and the spirit of the law each and every day.  They should be rewarded.  But those who hold on to the veneer of appearance over substance or truth will only cause havoc among the citizenry.

“False Options” – Community Engagement Podcast (26)

Great citizens don’t latch out and grab onto rigid ideologies that bring on political warfare.  Great politicians don’t either.  No one party has all the truth.  Neither does any citizen, or group of citizens.  Yet as we become more impatient with the political structures of our land, we can often reflect the rigidity of hyper-partisan politics.  We must grow as citizens, and to do so will require humility and the admission that we have much to learn if we are to be effective.  Political professionals seek to introduce ideological certainty into politics.  Such things are false options and we require the on-the-ground sense of living and knowledge each citizen requires each day to live productive lives.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

From Truth to Healing

Tough day yesterday as we learned that I would be required to endure a chemo-like therapy for the next two years to insure there are no more recurrences of tumours. We weren’t expecting it and it the procedure will likely impede many of things we wanted to accomplish over the next 24 months. But we opted to be open about it with those we knew. In fact, it was that kind of transparency during the past month that introduced us to new kinds of capacities within our community that we never knew existed. Cards, get well messages, flowers, meals – by the hundreds these arrived and we realized again that, if you are going to be in pain, you could do a lot worse than live among the good people of London, Ontario.

But what happens when the community itself is sick? Londoners discovered in this past week just how much we are struggling as numerous reports provided a view of how we are changing as a community. To kick off its Thanksgiving Food Drive, the London Food Bank announced that those families depending on its services increased by some 20% over this time a year ago – August was the highest month ever, with over 3700 families serviced. On the weekend, the London Free Press published a large spread, detailing the huge growth in families on welfare – up 47% since 2006. Then just yesterday the London Community Foundation released its current Vital Signs report, titled Life is Good … Until It Isn’t.

I actually found a measure of hope in the Foundation’s publication, in part because of its transparency. We expect both the London Food Bank and the London Free Press to chronicle some of the ongoing challenges of poverty in our community. These are primarily one-way exercises, designed to inform and urge community response. But to hear Community Foundation President and CEO, Martha Powell, say it, “We at the Foundation decided it was time to take a bold new step to do what we could to weigh in and make a significant investment.”

Some will be surprised to learn that the Foundation has opted to invest $500,000 in affordable housing projects in the next couple of years. Targeting the problem in such a concrete fashion represents a new direction for the organization. In choosing not to merely throw in some token investment, the Foundation is signalling to the community that it is prepared to lead in the recovery effort to assist in bringing London back to health.

What the London Community Foundation essentially undertook was an exercise in triage – a crisis process of targeting those areas that put health most at risk. I am one of the newest members of the board of the organization, yet in my time I have witnessed a group of dedicated individuals morph effectively into a team of people determined to take risks unlike any it has taken previously. I watched as they struggled with moving from traditional investment and granting patterns into new and innovative ways of injecting life back into a community in ways that deal more directly with those most desperate in our city.

The Vital Signs report deals directly with six key areas: environment, arts and culture, getting started, the gap between rich and poor, health and wellness and housing (you can read it at www.londonvitalsigns.ca). Yet it was to the last of these that the Foundation chose to add its significant weight. Following extensive research and interviews, it discovered that no matter the challenge faced by struggling Londoners, if individuals and families have no affordable place to live, then everything falls into decline. If the Foundation was to provide one large investment that could best assist the various struggling sectors, a $500,000 donation to providing physical security was the way it could offer the maximum assistance. They permitted the community to challenge their thinking through significant consultation, and in the end they backed that advice by putting some substantial skin in the game.

In effect, the Foundation was practicing what so many of our friends and family did upon learning of my illness – responded in a practical fashion that demonstrated compassion at the human level. And just as Jane and I discovered this week that it will take a few years until I am back to full health, the Foundation has expressed its commitment by doing more than merely reporting the problems, but by being there for the long haul.

London is in the process of telling narratives about itself. The stories are important because they reflect who we are as a community and how we respond to challenges placed directly in front of us. The London Community Foundation has opted to put in an initial bid that is significant in the offering. It’s now up to the rest of us to respond in kind – generously, practically, effectively.

Our city is in its truth-telling phase – an ultimately healthy exercise dealing with the imposing challenges this once vibrant city must endure. By stepping outside of its comfort zone, the Foundation has shown its own willingness to place itself at the centre of the action. It’s time our politicians, citizens and organizations followed that example, for the sake of those most challenged among us. How we respond to this example will determine not only how we come out of these difficult years, but whether we indeed become a city that has ultimately lived up to its potential, becoming a great community once again in the process.

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