Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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Premier’s green plan takes province nowhere

(November 2, 2017)

Under the guise of its “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan, the provincial government has referred our future to committee. All of the things we could, should and must do are now open for conversation and discussion by the whole province which, of course, will lead nowhere by the next election.

Committees are structures designed and intended for the dissipation of energy. No new idea, however good, will keep its momentum for change very long once a committee goes to work on it.

Any consensus on action regarding greenhouse gases or climate change that results from this “plan” will, therefore, have to be engineered, perhaps (once more) through those outrageously bad government feedback surveys that are conducted online.

Premier Brian Pallister has become the Leader Who Wouldn’t Lead. By the end of his term in office, much of the remaining global window to effect change to help steer the planet away from otherwise inevitable catastrophe will be gone.

It is an astonishing dereliction of duty, not merely some clever political ploy to play competing groups against each other. Governments of whatever ideological stripe have a responsibility to all the citizens, not just to all the partisans.

(To be clear, I am not trying to make a political statement here. The only party to which I have ever belonged — 40 years ago — was the Progressive Conservative Party.)

Pretending to have a perspective that considers the effects of its decisions out to the seventh generation, and then offering a document like A Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan, is simply offensive.

Launching it from the wonderful wild bird sanctuary at Oak Hammock Marsh either demonstrates the provincial government has a twisted sense of humour, or none at all. With this as our climate plan to combat global warming, take your pick of conclusions: either our goose is cooked or we are all dead ducks.

The provincial government does not need our ideas. It has been inundated with good ideas since the Tories came to office. They merely want to avoid decisions that might have a political cost, at least as far as that is calculated in the back rooms of the PC party’s headquarters at 23 Kennedy St.

For example, they chose to give the agricultural sector a free pass on greenhouse gas mitigation — as though farmers don’t live on the same planet as the rest of us or are somehow clueless about the effects of climate change and global warming.

“Can we afford to do it?” is the wrong question. “Can we afford not to do it?” is closer to an inconvenient truth.

To be clear, again, I am offering a personal perspective here, not one necessarily associated with any of the groups to which I belong.

After all, the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat — they are all personal. It is the same for you, for our children and grandchildren, and for all the children of Earth, present and future, who are the silent victims in this conversation.

Since Premier Pallister doesn’t like email, send him a letter, or a postcard, that identifies what is important to you:

I want to breathe clean air. Or, I want to eat healthy food. Or, I want to drink clean water.

Or, I don’t want my children or grandchildren to die because you have done nothing to change the future that is almost here.

Single stamps cost one dollar — perhaps the most important loonie you will ever spend.

The address is:

Premier Brian Pallister

204 Legislative Building

450 Broadway

Winnipeg, MB R3C 0V8

Mobilize your church, temple, synagogue or mosque to do the same. Your community club, agricultural association, curling rink, hockey team, book club, office or organization. Put a pile of blank cards out for customers, next to the till.

It’s about good business as well as wise choices. There is no profit in a healthy future that will not exist. Science and common sense must replace partisan politics and denial.

Premier Pallister, if you and your government are not just dodging your ecological responsibilities (as you have dodged them for the past 15 months), take a month to “listen” and then step up to do what you should have done from the start.

Make Manitoba the carbon-negative province it could be. Make us world leaders instead of laughingstock at home and abroad. Invest in a future the rest of us believe could be there if we work at it, even if you have lost hope and don’t believe it is possible.

Or resign, right now, all of you, and let someone else try before it is too late.

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Calculate the global fallout from nuclear weapons

(September 23, 2017)

The Korean War is still not over. People need to remember this if they are planning a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

No doubt to undermine the success of those 2018 Games, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems intent on focusing international attention on his half of the peninsula, divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone and relying on a shaky 64-year-old armistice to keep the peace.

But tantrums that are amusing in a child and irritating in an adolescent are frightening in a leader of a country whose national virility is measured by long-range missiles and nuclear weapons tests.
Match him with a U.S. president who seems cavalier about “nuclear footballs” and is prone to launch barrages of tweets at 5 a.m. — or cruise missiles during dessert at state dinners — and there is even more reason to worry. When U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to “rain fire and fury” on North Korea, it makes the North Korean missile program seem prudent, rather than paranoid.

All these antics push the nuclear doomsday clock even closer to midnight. We have lived with that clock for 70 years, however, so dire warnings have little or no effect on the situation. Both nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons seem immune to common sense; instead, they are promoted by nearsighted enthusiasts or applauded by irresponsible leaders.

In a heartbeat, nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons could cause more devastation worldwide than all of our other efforts to destroy ourselves combined. As we are pummelled by hurricanes, shrivelled by drought or scorched by forest fires, as we poison the air and contaminate the oceans and the water we drink, we need to remember this nuclear reality as a clear and present danger.

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