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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Children urge adults to heed science

(December 24, 2019)

Thirty-nine years ago, I wrote the first Christmas editorial for the (independent) Winnipeg Sun. It was about the magic of Christmas, answering again the question first asked by Virginia in 1897, that yes, of course, there is a Santa Claus.

Certainly, the Hallmark people believe it. Their “Countdown to Christmas” floods the airwaves with jolly Santas and various romantic miracles involving over-decorated homes, lavish parties and one-kiss happy endings — some shot right here in Manitoba.

We put up with the predictable plots and the painful dialogue because we know no blood will be spilled and everything will untangle and work out just nicely, in 90 minutes.

If only things untangled as easily and as quickly in the rest of our lives — and in our world!

Instead of a Hallmark holiday wish list, with all the items delivered by that jolly old elf and his helpers, the children this year are — figuratively — getting a lump of coal. However hard it might be for you to believe in Santa Claus, children right now are finding it much harder to believe in the wisdom of the adults in their lives.

Told to study science, to learn about the world as it is; told to think critically about what they should do; lectured to make wise decisions for how they live — they are instead given a textbook lesson in “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The bizarre picture of children unsuccessfully pleading with adults to “Listen to the science” and to make wise choices for their future would have been rejected as a movie plot 40 years ago. And yet, here we are.

The examples of idiocy are easy to find, close to home and on the other side of the world.

As Australia battles the worst wildfires in its history, and prepares somehow for record temperatures of 50 C (which few organisms can survive), its government approves new coal plants, argues against climate mitigation and tells everyone just to put another shrimp on the barbie.

There is something profoundly wrong when the children are forced to be gritty realists, while their parents wallow in the Hallmark fantasy world of party planners and Christmas tree lots.

The imagination of young people can be a powerful lever for change, taking what the adults see as impossible situations and turning them upside down.

I remember the 1980s, as we marched against nuclear weapons, joined hands with members of trade union Solidarity in the streets of Poland — and then watched U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev walk the world back from the nuclear brink. It was a time of glasnost, of perestroika, of major changes that saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Apartheid ended in South Africa, elections were held in Zimbabwe. It seemed like another world was more than simply possible: it was just ahead. Young people took their energy, their imagination, their hopes out into the street — and, against all odds, things changed.

But this year, there was no Miracle in Madrid. The COP25 conference concluded with weak outcomes (or none at all) on the key barriers to making the Paris Agreement work. Billed as the last, best chance to put the planet on a path to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, the climate conference was a failure. No timelines were agreed to, no measures were taken to ensure countries met their targets — nothing of any significance at all.

It was about power, but not solar or wind; just plain power, with the hegemony of the large industrialized nations ensuring that nothing was decided that would undermine their national interests. While the doors were closed on civil-society participants who protested the lack of action, the oil and gas lobby smugly continued to schmooze inside.

In terms of multilateral negotiations for a planetary future, COP25 marks the turning point in the culture of globalization we have been fed since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. A “One planet, one world” solution to the climate crisis no longer seems possible by negotiation.

There will be action, instead, from those children who now know for certain that the political and economic structures of the global system are rigged against change, against science, against the very survival of the next generation — against them, personally.

In 1980, the Winnipeg Sun editors tagged my piece as “The Magic of Innocent Imagination.”

Today, it would read “The Power of a Child.”

That, after all, is the real story of Christmas — that the birth of a child, laid in a manger, was enough to transform the most powerful empire in history and turn its values upside down.

The leaders of COP25 should not be congratulating themselves. They have just guaranteed that when change comes, they will be on the outside, pleading to get in.

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Despite resistance, change is coming

(December 6, 2019)

The last-minute cancellation of the COP25 climate change conference in Chile because of political unrest, forcing these crucial meetings to be moved instead to Madrid, reflects the current trouble that world leaders must manage.

But as I reflected on what to write, my focus kept shifting. Globally, the emissions gap report from the United Nations Environment Programme showed how far we have to go to meet the targets set in Paris — which themselves are not enough to stop the planet from warming to dangerous levels. Falling short of the Paris targets means catastrophe.

Federally, the Eco-fiscal Commission’s final report shows how far Canada is from reaching its own targets, and calls for a fourfold increase in the federal carbon tax if we are to have a prayer of reaching the Paris targets we agreed to meet.

Provincially, the Manitoba government continues to flounder, deciding it is a good time to de-fund environmental NGOs that have been working on a cleaner, greener province for decades, while demanding applause for its deeply flawed Climate and Green Plan.

At a city level, where emissions from transportation are our largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, cuts and barriers to public transit lead the list of Winnipeg city council’s money-saving alternatives.

On the environmental side, at all levels, therefore, our failure is abject. Despite science, observation, common sense, dire warnings and whatever else, trouble is coming.

If you live in California, Australia or any of a dozen region suffering the effects of extreme weather events right now, you might say it is already here.

Yet the greatest failure right now is actually not environmental; it is political. At all these different levels, there are people who are supposed to be leaders, who are responsible for doing what is needed, what is right, on behalf of those people who have elected, appointed, followed or simply put up with them.

They simply are not doing their jobs. Dealing with the environmental threat to our collective future requires them to change the way they steer the ship — or we will have to change those leaders for others.

While media storms brew over environmental data and emissions caps elsewhere, the people of Hong Kong have been in the streets protesting against their leaders. They are not alone.

Despite their important victory in recent elections, there is no indication the tactics of the Chinese government and its proxies will change, however. Protests in the streets of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela are brewing, too — and any peace is tenuous.

Everywhere, there is a basic distrust of Big Brother-style government, particularly when it is more “big bully” than “brother.”

Young people, who make up an increasing majority of the population worldwide, are especially fed up with the way things are, the way things are run and the grim future that awaits them because of the bullies still clinging to power.

I have always been amazed at the inability of people my age and older to listen to younger generations. We are burying the last of the veterans of the Second World War, which was a young person’s war.

From 1939 to ’45, it was the 17- to-25-year-olds who fought and died for all those freedoms that the demonstrators in Hong Kong want today. Then they rebuilt a shattered global society in the 1950s, ironically setting the stage for their baby boomer children to ignore what younger people of that same age want today.

These millennials, generation X, generation Y, or whatever, are considered too young, too spoiled, too naive, too educated, too inexperienced, too impractical, too idealistic, too lazy, too shallow or always on their cellphones. So, the oldsters feel they must retain control of our society — despite their ongoing failure to grapple with the realities of life in the 21st century.

When these people are told by teenagers like Greta Thunberg that “everything has to change,” their collective response is dismissal, rejection and anger — anything to avoid changing their selfish focus on themselves. They don’t take the bus or use the library — and never will.

This is why young people take to the streets. They aren’t allowed the voice they should have inside the political structures of our world, so they are taking their voice outside into the streets, instead — out of frustration, but with hope.

That there are so many of them, agitating for change, is a good sign. They haven’t given up, like the older generations have. They still think they can make a difference.

Their goal is — somehow — to make our current leaders care about the future. But if leaders don’t start showing by their actions that they care, too — and soon — these young people will find new leaders and some other ways to deal with our global political, economic and environmental crisis.

Change is coming. The only questions are how, who and when.

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