A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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In politics, loyalty can be dangerous

(October 29, 2020)

NO government — however tyrannical — survives for long, except by consent of the people.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where or when you are, or how much power you wield. If the people withdraw their support, it is game over for any politician, government or system. “Power to the people” is just a reminder of that political reality, not some revolutionary call to arms.

Accountability is the thin red line between order and chaos. It’s what keeps in check the anger of the crowds at mishandled situations or poor government. Things may be wrong, things may be bad, but at some point, the people responsible will pay for what they have done and things will get better.

Lose that accountability, however, and all bets are off. Overnight.

American democracy is on display right now, if not actually on trial. The question is whether U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican party will be held accountable for the gong show that politics down south has become, especially during the last four years.

Historically, we rejected the divine right of kings to rule over us, in favour of democratically elected governments. It is therefore ridiculous for any politician or political party these days to think they have some natural right to govern. Long terms of office, especially, are a mistake in any political system, because power without accountability tends to breed arrogance and entitlement.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was first elected a senator for Kentucky in 1984. Perhaps, like other longtime incumbents, he has been held accountable by the people of Kentucky every election since then, and they have just loved the job he has done. But given the evidence of the last four years, I suspect his continuation in office more likely reflects voters’ loyalty to the Republican party (McConnell became a U.S. senator five years before Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born — and it shows).

In fact, it is fair to say this U.S. election, from the start, is more about loyalty than about issues or accountability — especially personal loyalty to Trump and his version of the Republican party.

Yet, if all politicians were truly accountable to the people, everywhere, there would be no long-term incumbents or safe seats of any political colour. Politics would certainly be much more interesting, as a result — and the people or parties that do a poor job would be punted out.

Without real and regular accountability, however, politicians and political parties come to believe they can govern with impunity, as long as they placate their “base” of forever-loyal supporters. As a result, they promote social, economic, racial and ecological injustice, trampling the rest of us underfoot — for now.

Believing you can govern with impunity is a dangerous, delusional attitude that can only have an inevitable and catastrophic outcome — in the United States, or in any society, anywhere else, including here in Canada.

At some point, the people will inevitably demand accountability. When that day comes, scores will be settled with those who at the moment arrogantly consider themselves the new “untouchables” — those political and economic elites whose positions (they think) are above any challenge from the rest of us.

We need loyalty; of course we do — not to individuals or political parties, but to the ideals on which a just society is founded. If we don’t hold our leaders accountable to those ideals, loyalty to individuals or a political party inevitably will become lethal to the democratic principles that are increasingly under threat in our climate-changing world.

Those ideals include the rule of law. When, in the Canadian West, the RCMP arrest Indigenous grandmothers to protect construction of a pipeline whose existence is harmful to the planet, as well as local ecology, but then stand by in the East and watch non-Indigenous lobster fishers torch the livelihood of Mi’kmaq lobster fishers, there is something seriously wrong with our system.

If the federal opposition Conservatives had wanted to demonstrate responsible leadership instead of childish petulance, they should have investigated the purchase and then construction of that pipeline, which wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, playing to their loyal base in Alberta and on Bay Street, they chose to hyperventilate about the WE fiasco that did little more than wreck a charity doing good work.

Rather than actually safeguarding the finances of Canadians or working toward a sustainable future for everyone, they are playing pointless political parlour games — impressing themselves, but no one else.

This is why young people such as Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are frustrated and angry, because they find themselves having to be the adults in the room, as the world around them — and their future — burns.

I could wish a plague on the houses of all the immature, irresponsible politicians, but it is already here.

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Pallister’s legacy: not easy being blue

(October 10, 2020)

If Premier Brian Pallister had not chosen (for his own reasons) to dodge Manitoba’s fixed election date law, we would have been headed to the polls in this past month.

The Progressive Conservative government would have spent the last year spinning explanations for its unfulfilled promises. Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have unfolded in the harsh light of pre-election scrutiny. Voters would have had the chance to decide how well that plan worked — or didn’t — as schools opened and the second wave hit.

So Pallister didn’t just dodge a law — he dodged a bullet. Several bullets, in fact. No doubt party faithful have raised a few glasses in his direction over the past six months.

Yet, apart from grimaces at his various gaffes since the last campaign, people on all sides now seem to be waiting for his forecasted retirement. Pallister himself is not behaving like someone who expects to account for his actions — or his inactions — for much longer.

Most charitably, the current throne speech was aspirational. Less charitably, it was delusional. Confident projections of Manitoba’s economic health, despite the ongoing effects of a global pandemic, sound like something normally found on a Twitter feed from the White House. While implying (tongue in cheek?) this outcome would require two more generations of Progressive Conservative government, Pallister did not anoint himself “Premier for Life.”

Instead, he appears to be in “legacy mode,” acting like someone heading into retirement after two decades of public service. For that dedication and longevity alone, he deserves our appreciation — but his legacy as premier is not something he can decide.

For example, the recent self-congratulatory skewing of Manitoba’s last fiscal year toward the black (ignoring all casualties) was stunningly tone-deaf — especially as next year’s outlook, thanks (in part) to COVID-19, is catastrophic.

If Pallister thinks he will be remembered for that accomplishment, along with reducing the provincial sales tax, then someone should at least clean his rose-coloured glasses for him.

Whether he has time to make amends before leaving office remains to be seen, but here is what his legacy looks like to me, regarding a sustainable future for Manitoba:

First, despite a growing global climate crisis driven by continued use of fossil fuels, in the past four years, Manitoba has done nothing substantive to reduce its own emissions. Pallister has fought, undermined and sidelined Manitoba Hydro, instead of finding ways to enhance our production, sale and domestic use of electricity.

Other places buy the electric buses we make, while provincial support for public transportation in Winnipeg has been reduced, and bus service in the rest of the province has disappeared. There are no provincial incentives for EV purchase, nor for installing public charging stations — but there is $2.5 million for a friend’s report.

Second, there is no functional climate action plan in Manitoba, in part because Pallister has politicized environmental protection for the first time in our provincial history. He has consistently undermined previous environmental initiatives, and seemingly regards environmental NGOs (and now protesters, too) as suitable political targets for retaliation when they object.

In four years, there have been three ministers made responsible for environmental affairs (none of whom had prior experience in the field) and two complete reorganizations of their departments – the most in any cabinet portfolio – making real progress impossible in this critical area.

As an example, David McLaughlin’s first post-campaign job for the provincial government (long before becoming head of the public service) was to do the legwork for a climate plan, especially a carbon tax. I participated in an excellent consultation at the Legislature attended by representatives from across all provincial sectors. We found a lot of common ground, but our advice was essentially ignored — replaced by the interpreted results of that bizarre online public consultation, no doubt at Pallister’s direction.

The freestanding pillars that bedeck Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan make no architectural sense (outside of mimicking some ecological Stonehenge) and have changed nothing.

On Pallister’s watch, we have already lost four years we will never get back, largely because he has chosen to inject his personality (and ideology) into what should be a pragmatic discussion of what we can do together toward a sustainable future for all Manitobans. He has consistently resisted, objected to and refused to collaborate with the federal government on climate initiatives, leaving who knows how much money on the table that Manitobans could have used.

This week, there was nothing substantive about sustainability in the throne speech — just more of the premier’s trademarked flannel.

Brian Pallister’s personal political swan song might involve rewriting the lyrics of Kermit the Frog’s signature song to It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue, focusing on his legacy of reducing deficits and cutting taxes. But since he was elected premier in 2016, it has been much harder for Manitobans of all colours to be green — and that’s what will be remembered.

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