Wearing a mask puts “we” ahead of “me”

(September 25, 2020)

The ongoing dispute over making face masks mandatory highlights a larger problem in our global society — one that goes far beyond dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

To what extent should individuals be expected – or required — to change their personal behaviour for the benefit of others? Or, to put it another way, how much does “we” matter to “me”?

From the start, non-surgical masks were intended to protect other people from the virus I might be carrying — the droplets spraying out of my nose and mouth. The protests against required masking focus on limits to personal freedom, however, ignoring that protection of others. But living together in society always requires ethical limits on what I am allowed to do as an individual. I might want a red traffic light to mean “go,” but the law requires me to stop instead, whether I like it or not.

To put it another way, again, living in society requires “we” before “me,” much of the time.

And yet, that is not what the advertising machinery of consumer society barrages us with, 24-7, every day of the year. We are told to “shop till you drop,” to measure personal fulfilment through perpetual consumption — what we have, instead of who we are. #MeFirst is so much a part of western consumer culture that it does not need that hashtag to trend on social media.

It is troubling to realize this. For example, it means that U.S. President Donald Trump is not an aberration, but embodies what the American dream has unfortunately become for many people. More than ever before, he has made the presidential election about himself — not about principles or policies, but about his personality. In other words, #MeFirst – and it sucks to be you.

While it is easy to point fingers at our neighbours to the south, it is equally troubling to realize that we have exactly the same problem in Canada. Our political equivalents to President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are just more polite about it — at least, so far.

In saying this, I am not aligning to the left of the political spectrum: selfishness and privilege are members of every political caucus these days. But if there is a spectrum of social behaviour, I would rather identify with “we” than “me.” The trending hashtag should be #WeFirst, instead.

While COVID-19 — and the unfortunately related masking debate — consumes far too much of our attention these days, larger and more important issues related to the growing climate crisis reveal the scale of the me/we problem we face as a global civilization.

There is some bitter irony in the fact that the Me to We/WE Charity organization was the most high-profile casualty so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the mishandling of its involvement with the federal Liberal government. But it was the blood-in-the-water, shark-ish response of the other political parties that sealed its fate. No protestations of the greater good, the unmet needs of unemployed students, the importance of the work the organization had done to this point — none of that mattered, especially to MP Pierre Poilievre, who was Conservative fanatic-in-chief on that file.

It takes little imagination to link the ferocity of the concerted attack on the WE organization to protests over compulsory masking, and to the upcoming debate on mandatory vaccination. In a pandemic society, the idea of “we” is under threat from all sides. “We the people” is increasingly being set against “me and my house,” pitting collective welfare against personal well-being, caring for my neighbour against looking out for No 1. It’s #MeFirst, in everything from toilet paper to partying.

Fundamentally, social compliance is always a matter of personal choice — no government, however tyrannical, survives except by consent of the people. It is impossible to get more than a veneer of acceptance by threat or compulsion, which is why it is so important to shift from a culture of #MeFirst to a culture of #WeFirst.

Whether we are talking about responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to the climate crisis that is burning what it is unable to flood, somehow we have to see beyond our own personal horizons and appreciate the situation in which the rest of the world finds itself.

As author Damian Barr tweeted in April, we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same kind of boat. It is very easy to focus on yourself, and ignore others, when you think your boat is large enough to ride out the storm, or when you can head south and avoid the struggles that winter will certainly bring.

Yet when concern for ourselves consistently trumps our concern for others, the survival of global civilization itself is at risk. Choosing to wear a mask in public means more than you realize, to more people than you will ever know.

Read More

Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

Read More

As youth follow Thunberg’s lead, what are the adults doing?

(September 25, 2019)

“The adults have failed us.”

The message Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has delivered clearly and consistently for the past year, from her spot outside the Swedish parliament to the UN, is simple and direct.

We are in a global crisis and the adults in charge of everything have done nothing to solve it.

It’s not about getting more information — we have all we need. It’s also not about figuring out what to do — we already know.

The adults have failed us, she says, because they have done nothing. The future of all the children of Earth is literally going up in smoke.

Every day we don’t act, the situation gets worse and more of that future disappears. Species go extinct, at the rate of 200 per day. The air is fouled, the water is filled with toxins and plastic, the food becomes unhealthy or scarce — this is what her future holds, as the landscape becomes dry, barren and unlivable.

She calmly observes there are no politics to change that reality, just yet.

In Canada, the federal election campaign was launched before the dust of the provincial election settled here in Manitoba. Her observation, unfortunately, continues to be true for us.

You could argue — though I would disagree — that business and industry have no responsibility to care for people or for the planet, that narrow-minded self-interest excuses their lack of social responsibility. But politicians, especially in a democracy, have responsibilities to everyone.

While we could also argue about the details of those responsibilities, clearly one of them should be preventing the end of civilization as we know it. Yet the response of all provincial parties to the climate crisis was pathetic, and I fear the federal parties will do no better.

In Manitoba, we have a renewed majority for a government that made indifference and inaction on environmental issues for the past three years into a perverse point of pride, preferring absence to engagement on those issues during the campaign.

The rest of the parties were no better. The climate crisis was ignored by the NDP in favour of a Throwback Thursday routine on health care, and while it was an earnest (but unconvincing) plank in the Liberal platform, for some inexplicable reason a sustainable future was sidelined even by the Green party, whose climate policies were pale green at best.

So, not surprisingly, many Manitobans ignored their own responsibility and stayed home. But there is no point to calling a society democratic when the people don’t vote.

The single biggest reason I heard for this dereliction of duty was, “Why vote, when nothing ever changes?”

There is truth in that reaction. Against the apathy and environmental inaction of the Progressive Conservative party — which once again garnered about 40 per cent or so of the vote — the other parties postured their 60 per cent share into inevitable defeat.

The politics of a sustainable future requires a coalition for the planet, where the best and brightest members of all parties — or none — find a way to work together for the radical transformation that our world so desperately needs.

Thunberg also reminds us individual choices matter, that what each of us does changes the world, in one direction or another.

On Friday, children will be following her lead and striking for the climate in more than 100 countries.

In Manitoba, they will be at the legislature from noon onward, to try to convince this next group of provincial politicians that — together — they must do what needs to be done, so these children can grow toward a future in which they are able to live.

But on that day, and in the aftermath of that global climate strike, where will the adults be? Will they be standing with the children, or standing against them?

Where will you be? Will you change how you live, the choices you make, every day? Or will you instead look into the eyes of your children and grandchildren and tell them you simply don’t care what happens to them?

We are faced with that kind of black or white choice. If nothing else, at least be honest — follow Thunberg’s example and be clear and direct about what you think and what matters most to you. Have the guts to tell the children, to their faces, that you intend to let their future burn.

If you can go on making those same choices as before, after you watch the children strike on Friday, then my Canada — and my world — really is upside down.

Thunberg and others have wondered whether the climate crisis is too important to be left to the politicians to solve. They must also be wondering if the climate crisis is too important for the adults to be left in charge any longer.

We will see what they decide.

Read More