The perils of speaking truth to power

(March 11, 2021)

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, received the US$1-million Dan David Prize last month, it was not only for his lifelong work in public health. He was also honoured for “speaking truth to power.”

Speaking truth to power is not only a thankless task; it is a dangerous one. Power rarely appreciates the conversation – something Fauci knows only too well.

It’s why 50 journalists worldwide were killed in 2020. And being an environmental defender is even more dangerous: in 2019, 212 were killed.

Thankfully, in Canada, the risks are not so high for either journalists or environmental defenders. But power — though constrained by the rule of law — still reshapes those laws to make it harder for truth to be spoken, and punishes people who speak it anyway.

Unfortunately, under Premier Brian Pallister, Manitoba has become a riskier place for environmentalists and journalists to advocate for a sustainable future. For some reason, it seems there is no more sensitive nerve for Pallister than the one connected to the environment and sustainable development. Even when he is given the opportunity to receive federal money, whether it is from a carbon tax or sustainable infrastructure funds for municipalities, or public transportation subsidies, he balks or refuses to co-operate.

Further, any criticism of Pallister’s government or its policies — however reasonable and well-deserved that criticism might be — is immediately considered to be both a personal affront and a politically motivated attack. I also suspect anything less than enthusiasm from his MLAs is viewed as disloyalty — perhaps even enough to get cabinet ministers sacked and their departments reconfigured.

As for environmental affairs, no other sector of the Progressive Conservative government has had its cabinet responsibilities rearranged (read: mangled) three times in five years, each time then given to a new, rookie minister. It appears that just when the green minister starts to get a handle on her hastily rearranged portfolio and makes progress in co-operating with local environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), she is replaced.

Even when Pallister’s heart is in the right place, his head is somewhere else. For example, after months of consultations, hype and dramatic build-up, the 2017 release of the Climate and Green Plan, in all its many-pillared splendour, left ENGOs and everyone else bewildered by what Pallister thought was the way to make Manitoba into Canada’s greenest province.

Pallister was clearly hurt by this general lack of applause. So, after eliminating Green Manitoba and removing energy conservation (PowerSmart) from Manitoba Hydro, Pallister’s government (supposedly as a cost-saving measure) then decided to defund the main ENGOs in Manitoba.

These actions were clearly driven by ideology more than frugality — the amount of money saved by defunding the ENGOs, for example, is laughably small in comparison to other spending decisions that the Pallister government routinely makes on a whim (new vaccine, anyone?).

Our provincial ENGOs are not on the side of any government; nor should they be. They are on the side of Manitobans, present and future. Increasingly grim climate numbers demonstrate that no government, anywhere, is doing enough, quickly enough, to make the kind of difference a sustainable future requires. So giving Pallister’s environmental paralysis a thumbs-down doesn’t automatically mean giving a thumbs-up to the NDP, the Liberals or even the Green Party.

But despite the (literal) price Manitoban ENGOs have paid for criticizing the Pallister government’s decisions — where criticism seems to mean anything less than rapturous applause — they continue to do what they can, for all of us.

This is why three main ENGOs in Manitoba — Green Action Centre, Climate Change Connection and Wilderness Committee — applied for and received funding (with other partners) from the Winnipeg Foundation to draw up a blueprint for what Manitobans could do together, working in practical ways toward the achievable goal of a sustainable future.

(Launched on Feb. 18, you can find The Road to Resilience at the group’s website, climateactionmb.ca).

Speaking truth to power doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict — but if power can’t handle that truth, then those who choose to speak it anyway will likely be in trouble. In Pallister’s Manitoba, it seems to mean limits on both freedom of speech and action, according to the currently phantom Bill 57 (the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act), the contents of which we still await.

It also can mean losing government funding, the elimination of valuable programs, and just fighting to stay afloat, rather than being supported in educating Manitobans about sustainability and resilience.

But in a free and democratic society, that truth needs to be spoken, both to keep freedom and democracy alive and to keep tyranny in check. We should respect and honour those who have courage to do this, whatever the price — and perhaps listen to what they have to say.

For a change.

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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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