Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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Human-rights museum should document climate justice

(April 16, 2019)

Visiting a museum is supposed to make you think. It provides new information, new things to see or hear or touch. Museum displays, done well, provide a context within which those experiences are interpreted.

Visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) obviously makes you think about human rights, who has them, and what happens to individuals and to societies when those rights are not respected.

While there are bits and pieces on this theme throughout, what is missing right now is a significant, ongoing CMHR display on climate justice.

In Canada, environmental defenders are humiliated, abused, arrested or sued by developers to shut them up. Elsewhere, in places where the rule of law is either an inconvenient option or is a sham orchestrated to the benefit of the elite, those same kinds of people are simply shot.

The year 2017 was lethal for environmental defenders — more than three were murdered every week — and 2018 looks to have been just as bad. What is often left out of that story (only briefly and reluctantly reported in mainstream media) is that most of those murdered environmental defenders were Indigenous people, women and local community activists. They were protesting and working against large multinational forces from elsewhere (such as mining companies registered for convenience in Canada) whose actions are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people and the places that these defenders call home.

In a climate-changing world where we are attempting to fulfil global goals for sustainable development, this is unconscionable. Deliberately ignoring the human consequences of ecological destruction is just as genocidal as the other historical examples CMHR displays. What is worse, it is happening right now.

Humans don’t knowingly or willingly destroy the places where they live. Even U.S. President Donald Trump won’t spray Agent Orange on his Mar-a-Lago golf course or turn it into a toxic waste dump. In the modern world, however, it seems we have no problem destroying the places where other people live.

Ecocide leads to genocide. Human rights abuses are often the result of environmental abuse. Justice for all therefore includes ecological justice, just as human rights include ecological rights.

Looking at the forced migration of millions today, numbers that will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen, ecological justice not only means changing the way we live but also changing our attitudes toward climate refugees.

Our ethical response as Canadians needs to be more than “Sucks to be you!” as we pride ourselves on having won the lottery of birth and geography, especially here in Manitoba.

Why should we expect people to stay where they are and starve, die of thirst or drown?

We wouldn’t. Consider those of many of our ancestors who emigrated to Canada to escape conditions in which they could not live — they certainly didn’t.

Compare the devastating effects of cyclone Idai on Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the threat of a similar storm on the coast of Australia. The developing African countries were slammed, with many people losing their lives during the storm and millions more at risk afterward, whereas the Australians were airlifted to safety ahead of time. Money is available in Australia to rebuild, while the African countries wait, hope and pray for promised aid that (too often) is late or never arrives at all.

We seem afraid to do more.

Fear is one way to shift public opinion, but in this situation, that fear has been misdirected at the victims. Racist and elitist elements have hijacked the narrative, promoting a fear of the Other, a fear of difference, instead of a fear of the people and institutions responsible for climate change and the political instability that fuels forced migration.

What would you do for your children and grandchildren if their survival were threatened? Why should you expect people who live somewhere else to do less for their families? And why should their survival be somehow pitted against our own, making us both into victims of the forces that profit from the misery of others? Those who golf, because they can, while the world around them burns?

These are the kind of questions that a display on environmental defenders and ecological justice would provoke in CMHR visitors.

They are also the kinds of questions we should be asking of those people who want to become — or continue to be — our political leaders. We have two election campaigns almost upon us. Climate activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that no government these days can run on its good record when it comes to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

Some governments are bigger failures than others, just as their opposition parties may offer worse alternatives.

But without major shifts in policy and actions, they will all be complicit in the ecological genocide to come.

And so will we.

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