Pandemic Perspective

One of the effects of the pandemic, or a positive spin-off, has been the appreciation of our social or cooperative instincts. We have taken great pride in acknowledging how Canadians have helped each other or banded together (often virtually) to survive the pandemic. Rightfully we have praised front line health workers and others in essential services who have taken the risks of infection in the fight against the virus. It has been inspiring how so many people have generously accepted the need to physically distance, wear masks and reduce social gathering to protect each other as well as ourselves.

As we start to recover from the pandemic (when and how that will come to be) I hope we retain the perspective of how important our collective relationships are to our survival. I hope we continue to value each other and especially those who work on the frontline of our social services. It may be an ambitious desire, but I hope we resist the pressure to put individual rights before collective responsibilities.

I believe there has been a creeping, surreptitious manipulation of our culture to put individual rights before collective responsibilities. I completely agree we need to protect individual rights in our society, particularly for minorities and women. Being an individual with the capacity to know, choose and err is essential for our collective existence. However, individualism as a manipulated  ideology undermines the social cohesion and cooperative enterprise we need to be individuals. The individualism we see running rampant in the United States for example, is socially corrosive in its violence, racism and exploitation.

Like many of you, I have been watching more movies in the last year. One dominant theme I think I see in American movies is the absolute acceptance of individualism. Weather it is comic book heroes, financial or historical characters or benevolent stories, the individual is always the primary focus, not the collective context they are in. Even stories with a social message in a movie inevitably feature individuals rather than a collective.

In Canada, the covert primacy of the individual over the collective is slipping into our cultural norms. Canadian movies are playing into the same American market themes. Far right organizations are echoing the same libertarian protest. The charter of rights and freedoms and human rights commissions are being tested by individual grievances. Electoral politics has become a celebrity competition (national elections look like presidential campaigns for example). And daily journalism is always reducing stories to individual impact as if we are unable to see ourselves and our interests in the news.

Stressing our collective responsibilities enhances our individual rights. As a white male, I benefit from official efforts to correct the impact of colonialism for Indigenous citizens and when women are enabled to play a greater role in the governing of Canada, for example. Prioritizing individual rights however is another means to divide and rule, based on a false dichotomy between individual and collective rights.

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Assault on Congress

Is the invasion of the US Congress the final contortion of a dying manipulation of American democracy OR the first day of a transformation of American democracy.

Merle Streep, February 2017: “If we live through this precarious moment,” she said. “If [Trump’s] catastrophic instinct to retaliate doesn’t lead us to nuclear winter, we will have much to thank our current leader for. He will have woken us up to how fragile freedom is.” 

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Let’s take back ‘Populism’

For some time now I’ve been troubled by how conventional news media and our political leaders have co-opted the term ‘populist’ .  The term is now used to describe mass movements with ultra conservative or extreme right-wing qualities.  The term is often a pejorative label for how extreme authoritarian leaders have been empowered.

At one time, I thought populism was a positive progressive term referring to how working class or average citizens thought. I have read where Tommy Douglas and Joey Smallwood were popular and populist leaders who championed the interests of average citizens (the fundamentals of society).

To be clearer, I think we should avoid using ‘populist’ to describe conservative mass movements and instead call them ‘elitist’ for convenience. Using the term elitist will shift owness of the phenomena to where political power is generated, controlled and exhibited. Emphasizing the elitism in these movements also more correctly defines them, as I think they do not reflect the interest of the masses, the majority populations. And second, the default to elitist leaders and authoritarian government underlies the anti-democratic nature of these movements.

Dictionary definitions;

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.

Elitism: the advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society.

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Who Won the Presidential Election – no one!

Today, November 4th: Don Trump said this morning he won the election. He is right. I think his objective is to be disruptive and he has achieved that and more. The news media reports the result of the election is ‘too close to call.’ They are wrong. The American public are very clearly evenly divided.

We news and politics junkies who have been obsessed with Trump and the election have been distracted. Watching the congressional soap opera in the US has diverted our attention from what is structurally and fundamentally going on.

Let’s step back and look at what the election means, without our ideological hopes or fears, or short term speculations. I think we are seeing a struggle in America for maintaining entitled power while global forces are forcing American capitalism to change. In a way, the election yesterday was a referendum on globalization and who will benefit from it in America.

Look at who voted for the two main parties.

Republican: old capital (landed, manufacturing, resource based), classic unionized workers, rural and small town, small business people. Minorities and the middle class who believe in the American dream but feel it is not for them. Basically those who most directly have paid for but not gained from globalization.

Democrat: finance capital (new money, corporate, international), young workers (gig, IT, entertainment), urbanites, educated women. Minorities and the middle class who believe in the American dream and still think they can get a piece of it. Basically those who have seen some benefits of ‘free trade’ but aren’t sure how to stay in the game.

What I don’t know, is whether this election is part of a revolutionary shift, or merely another adjustment in the historic sharing of power among America’s elite? Wade Davis and others have written about the fundamental loss of American power and influence, cultural unity and the fear of addressing the energy and environmental crisis. All this could indicate a deep crisis of capitalism and western democracy a mere alignment will not save. It will be messy and many people will be hurt, but we could be seeing a tectonic shift, a transformational opportunity. What do you think?

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Is Reality now Imitating Fiction

I watched CNN news when the second plane hit the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. I had just come into my hotel room in Kampala, Uganda around 4:20pm and thought I was watching an apocalyptic movie. It took a few minutes to realize this was a real time event.

The covid-19 pandemic and environmental disasters in the last few years (forest fires, hurricanes, snow storms) also seem so mammoth and consuming they could only be Hollywood movie scenarios.

Recently I have been watching Youtube clips of President Trump and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and experiencing the same confusion. It feels like I’m watching a political thriller, not real time events. Their outrageous defense of lies or vicious attacks on opponents sound like the script of cheap fiction, possibly a 1984 knock-off.

Over the last three years it appears there are more events that seem to be so outrageous or horrific, so unimaginable they are more fiction than reality. It appears there are so many events taking place that only novels, movies or paintings can rationally portray. And underlining these portrayals is the terrifying awareness that human beings are responsible.

Carole Cadwalladr summarizes this moment when she writes, “We have already been through the equivalent of a social media pandemic – an unstoppable contagion that has sickened our information space, infected our public discourse, silently subverted our electoral systems. It’s no longer about if this will happen all over again. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy, can survive the age of Facebook.” (Weekly Guardian, July 31 2020)

Russian and fascist leaders have certainly realized the political value in distorting and disorienting our basic thinking on major issues. The social media manipulation of the US 2016 election and Brexit referendum fostered confusion rather than promoting particular candidates or issues. The Trump presidential campaign has already hired principles from Cambridge Analytica because of their success in 2016.

We are truly living through the anthropocene epoch but we need to expand the scope of this definition to include human manipulation of social thinking, perceptions and values. Humans are responsible for the changes in our climate and environment, but also in reason and logic, truth and ultimately of reality. With the spread of communication technology and social media the means for mediated interaction has changed dramatically. With the failure of global capitalism and the rise of fascism, public relations have more aggressively attacked truth, facts and honesty. The very building blocks of reality are being manipulated and distorted for political ends. Much of this phenomenon has been around for centuries, but now more pervasive and consuming.

While this manipulation seems apocalyptic there is still the opportunity for personal and social resistance. We do not have to accept the distortions, lies and misrepresentations. For example, let’s watch Trump and McEnany on the internet with a critical responsibility to separate truth from their propaganda. When we make consumer choices, let’s remember the hidden environmental and human costs. Instead of fearing or lamenting environmental destruction let’s do what is possible to minimize our energy consumption. Subliminal and overt efforts to marginalize women and people of colour can be counteracted by invitations that narrow social distance, help us empathize and build solidarity.

The manipulators do not own truth or reality. But it is up to us to challenge them and consistently confront their distortions.

dlewycky@outlook.com  

An·thro·po·cene

Adjective – relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

Noun – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

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Follow up to Wade Davis article

The Unraveling of America : Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. In Rolling Stone, July 2020

In this article Davis eloquently and intelligently outlines the history of cataclysmic change and what America has become in the last century. He then focuses on how the covid pandemic has and will affect America; “COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.” Everyone should read the article and discuss it with friends, family and colleagues.

Without denigrating the quality of the article, it is important to note that others (like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Joseph Stiglitz and Chris Hedges) have been writing and talking about the demise of America and “what had long been forsaken”.  And I speculate that most Canadians already share a generalized awareness of how America has already crumbled, though we may not have pulled all our assumptions together as well as Davis has.

I only wish Davis had named “what had long been forsaken”. I would appreciate if he had taken the risky step to say the capitalistic system, with its extreme competitiveness and individualism, that America has idealized, has failed. Underlying everything Davis shows has changed in America, the irrationality of electing Trump and how US globalization failed to deliver benefits for citizens in North America points to the efforts to prop up US capitalism and then its virtual collapse. (Note: this perspective is not a blanket condemnation of capitalism generally, as Davis points out social democratic governments can and have extracted benefits for citizens from capitalism.)

Then the next effort for Davis and others is to propose what needs to be done to reverse the collapse of society in America. And for Canada, what should be done to ‘build back better’ after covid-19. While it is important to clearly describe the collapse of the American dream and all the social weaknesses covid has exposed in Canada, it is more important to get started on restructuring government, democratic institutions and social relations. Let’s get started on figuring out what we need to do to avoid the inherent weaknesses of our past economy, foster genuine social equity, aggressively stop damaging the environment and rejuvenate democracy. Lamenting what has happened and how we failed each other and the environment is cathartic, but lets get together to support each other and build the world we want and need.

(My next blog will offer a few ideas of what I think we can do going forward.)

 

 

US versus WE

It is great that the WE controversy is getting scrutiny. I believe the inqurery will expose a great deal of how our government is removed from the daily cultural and economic realities of most Canadians.

First, let’s not forget the plan to set up a huge job fund for students through a non-governmental agency was a good idea.

However two errors took place. Clearly the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance had direct ties to WE and should have recused themselves from any discussions about WE. They have admitted that. Second they and the bureaucrats should have known that WE was incapable of delivering the results intended.

WE is a registered charity. WE officials claim to be working for children and youth and in countries of the south suffering poverty. However, I believe they are an elite business fronting for corporations and celebrities wanting to look like they are progressive and empathetic. The organisation in my opinion is doing  little or nothing to change the root causes of poverty and discrimination. WE is paternalistic and colonial in how they engage with countries of the south. While their rhetoric is progressive their behaviour is regressive.

The second aspect of what I hope the inquirery exposes is how our opposition parties are so out of touch with Canadians. They are focused on the ethical breech and are demanding resignations at a time of national crisis. Canada needs a strong leadership now and whether anyone likes the Liberals or not (and I am not or ever have been a Liberal supporter), they have done a decent job buffering the worst impact of Covid-19.

The opposition parties should be challenging the Liberals on the bad choice of delivery organization, a bad management decision. The Liberals and the civil service involved should have done their homework and known that WE is the worse kind of charity.  And it is certainly not a social development agency. As well, all MPs should be engaging with genuine social development agencies

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Has the Revolution Started … and am I left behind?

The world seems to be on the edge of a transformative change. Is something bigger happening or am I just wishful thinking? And because of covid am I and others sidelined.

Like many of you, I have been watching the fervent social uprising of people around the world, mainly young, to challenge the abuse of our environment and people of colour. Demonstrations and protests in the last year have brought thousands of concerned citizens out onto the streets. They are saying the abuse of the environment and people of colour (particularly Indigenous citizens in Canada) must stop. Great!

The size and scope of these demonstrations look like revolt. Many of the people demanding the rights of Indigenous people are pointing to a history of colonialism and the need to change the Indian Act, for example. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations are similarly pressing for defunding and reframeing the police. This looks like there is more to the demonstrations than only a desire to expose past wrongs. In some countries, demonstrations are against government policies as in Hong Kong. Within the fervour of exposure are indicators of some direction for institutional or structural change, for reform.

But are these actions just a transition to some unknown social reordering, a ‘new normal’, or the foundation for revolution (in a Canadian way of course)? Understandably the street action is not going to bring down the state, or even push out those in positions of power. But the level of participation and scope of the protests indicate more is being expressed. There is a not-so-subtle critique of power in these actions. Governments are being challenged openly. The police particularly are being challenged for their racial biases and their authority over the security of society. Our governments are be called to account for their biases (it is great to see how Trump is being condemned in the US). These actions and events are indicating a political dissatisfaction going beyond the headline issues, that could be transformative or revolutionary.

The conditions created by covid-19 are possibly leading to a growing awareness that governments have consciously neglected major social systems and supports. Under funding of public health, care for senior citizens and people with a disability are a few of the major needs exposed. Low wages for front line and part time workers, kept low by business and government, is having a backlash effect on everyone. Some people have now put 2 + 2 together to understand what happened after the 2008 financial crisis – the banks were rescued with massive amounts of public money and citizens and workers have paid ever since for that rescue. In Canada, more people see how all three political parties have failed to provide leadership on addressing important structural changes facing us all. The Liberal government has flaunted the revised NAFTA that is partially responsible for the current crisis and reneged on a commitment to electoral reform.

Are the conditions ripe and the consciousness focused enough to stimulate political transformation? I would like to think so. There is certainly a growing understanding that collective action is necessary to protect us as a society. The public health message may seem naive but ‘be kind, be calm, be safe’ has clearly focused attention on our collective strength. The next step is seeing inequality as the underlining fault in our political system, seeing how inequality is economically constructed and maintained. Are we going to organize now to insist that equality is essential for public health, protecting the environment and promoting racial justice? Are we going to demand a living wage (higher minimum wage or basic annual income, ) and tax the rich to pay for it? Are we going to insist democracy work for everyone, not just those with property and wealth?

A return to past normal is impossible. Some say we need a ‘new normal’. But an opportunity for a ‘better normal’ is possible. Let’s seize the opportunity.

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BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Protests and demonstrations against racism are putting pressure on institutions and individuals to change. This is necessary and healthy for all of us.

Part of one major demand of the protestors is systemic* change in policing. Again this is necessary and healthy. My hope, however, is that we as a society go beyond general demands for change in one institution and make radical change in cultural racism.

Having lived in different countries and organized anti-apartheid action in Canada in the 70’s and 80’s, I have seen and felt different kinds of racism. I would say Canadian racism is different in that it is largely based on ignorance. Now I agree with one young protestor who said ignorance is no longer an excuse.

But I do know people are discriminated against because they are vulnerable, disempowered, regardless of the scale of racism. To truly end racism people need to be empowered so they are not vulnerable and denied their full human and civil rights. This means we all have a responsibility to reach out to each other, to actively include others in our social and family lives who are different than we are, and create changes in our communities and organizations that invite everyone in Canada. We all have a responsibility to demonstrate that diversity empowers us all, when we empower each other.

Canada has made systemic changes but more is necessary. Recent immigrants are now our neighbours and colleagues and creating opportunities to learn about our differences and similarities. Many Canadians have lived and travelled to different cultures and have a genuine respect and appreciation for difference. We have made a start in treating each other with respect, though we have a long way to go.

* Systemic Racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. (Toronto Mayor’s Committee on Community and Race Relations. Race Relations: Myths and Facts)

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Are international Trade deals delivering on their Promises?

 Soon, Canadians will be facing new debates over multilateral trade agreements. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA was challenged by voters in one region of Belgium. Hopefully we will soon have an opportunity to speak to government about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And one of the spin-offs of the American election could be a renegotiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Last month, Prime Minister Trudeau promoted global trade and agreements at the G20 in Switzerland. He said such deals will improve international relations and will be good for the Canadian “middle class”. But are these trade deals good for Canadians? Shouldn’t we as citizens see and receive the benefits of global trade and these deals?

Two statistical measurements of how well Canadians are doing since signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA 1989) are the Gini Coefficient and the Quality of Life Index. These formal tools utilize established formula and criteria to quantify certain economic values and compare these over time and to other countries.

The Gini Coefficient measures income inequality (how national wealth is distributed) and is being linked to economic and social health of a country.

Income inequality in Canada declined between the Second World War and the mid 1970s (Yalnizyan, 2010). However, this situation began to change during the 1980s, as market income inequality began to grow, while after-tax income inequality did not. In the 1990s, both market and after-tax income inequality grew. This trend of growing inequality continues today”, according to Stephanie Procyk, University of Toronto (in Understanding Income Inequality in Canada, 1980–2014 ).

The Conference Board of Canada backs this observation in its 2010 analysis of Gini Coefficients.

Income inequality in Canada has constantly increased since 1988 and has only levelled off after 2006. Canada reduced inequality in the 1980s, with the Coefficient reaching a low of 0.281 in 1989, then it rose in the 1990s, but has remained around 0.32 in the 2000s. http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/society/income-inequality.aspx

The 2012 report by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), How are Canadians Really Doing? presents another perspective on the economic benefits Canadians enjoy.

Using 1994 as a starting point for measurement, the CIW was assigned a baseline score of 100. By 2010, the combination of the domains shows us that our wellbeing improved on many counts, primarily in Education and Community Vitality, but declined on others such as in the Environment and in Leisure and Culture. Pulling together all eight domains, we see the CIW composite index increases to a score of 105.7 – just a 5.7% improvement in quality of life over the 17-year period.

When you compare the robust 28.9% in Canada’s GDP to the small 5.7% growth in our wellbeing over the same time period, we have cause for deep concern. Looking more closely at the impact of the recession of 2008, it resulted in an 8.3% decline in GDP up to 2010. However, the recession resulted in a stunning 24% decline in Canadians’ wellbeing from the modest gains made up to 2008.”

In the book 20 years Later: Has the FTA Delivered on its Promise? Bruce Campbell of CCPA writes, “There will be those among the business elite who will trumpet the free trade agreement’s success. They will link it to the current buoyant economy, with its strong currency, fiscal and trade surpluses, low unemployment and low inflation. … The facts, however, cast strong doubt that the promise made 20 years ago—the promise of a better life for all Canadians—has been fulfilled. It was an empty promise made by a business elite that has reaped the benefits of these self-serving agreements, without really considering how the majority of Canadians would be affected.” (December 2007).

When we hear of another trade deal being hatched, let’s question who really benefits. Canadians may not resort to a Brexit or Trump extreme reactions to these trade deals, but we can voice our critique in a Canadian fashion. And, if proponents of these deals want our support, they should show clearly how we will benefit. If we don’t see the benefits, then we should be prepared to turn them down.

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Change will come to the CP Rail yards

Developing the CP rail yards still an Opportunity

Last month the Manitoba government terminated the task force set up under the previous government to consider moving the Canadian Pacific rail yards out of inner city Winnipeg. While we don’t know what will happen next, this move was expected and is needed.

Considering what can be done about the rail yards is a huge, complicated and costly matter. Setting up a public task force to deal with all of these issues under the leadership of former premier Jean Charest was premature. High level negotiations will be needed to direct any change in land use, but strategic positioning and timing are important. The former government went public when a great deal of work behind the scenes was needed first.

The current government had to create its own process for addressing this opportunity. It’s customary that new governments put their brand on important on-going initiatives.

Second, the government needs to get its own intelligence in place on the technical, logistical, commercial and political requirements involved and on how to effectively manage a development process. As the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg reported in 2012, a feasibility study is needed to provide research based knowledge on what can be done to move the rail yards. This knowledge is needed to give all levels of government the perspective needed to make preliminary decisions, and to replace speculation with substance. This advice is even more pertinent today.

The SPCW report pointed to research needed for assessing the costs of moving the rail yards, soil remediation, building new infrastructure and measuring the impact on local industry. Equally important, the report also advocated investigating the tax potential of residential and commercial development, cost savings of avoiding bridge replacement, alternative uses of the rail right of way through the city (rapid transit for example), energy reduction savings and other opportunities for generating revenue from this land.

In 2012 when public discussions were facilitated by the Free Press on the merits of a rail yard development, two things were clearly evident. On one hand people were operating on the basis of supposition and personal opinion rather than facts or research. This approach persists today. On the other hand, once we started taking about practical possibilities and tangible opportunities, everyone agreed a development of the rail yards property would be a tremendous benefit for the city and all residents into the next century.

Third, any change for the rail way through the city has to be initiated by the City of Winnipeg according to the federal Rail Relocation and Crossings Act (1985). Therefore, the Province and the City need to think through their interests and common issues involved in moving the rail yards. While the Mayor and Council are more visionary than the last regime and will be receptive to considering a development process, they also need basic information before committing to negotiations with CP Railway.

A paced approach to developing this property can also respond to evolving conditions. Ongoing expansion of CentrePort in particular will make a huge difference in how the railway sees benefit in moving. Having business oriented governments at three levels now may also lead to more support for developing the rail yards for community as well as corporate benefit. And public concern with the safety of rail traffic through urban areas only adds to the motivation for railway relocation.

With a new approach to this issue, I hope we can shift the focus from just moving the rail yards to exercising an opportunity to address city needs. For Winnipeg to grow and meet the needs of citizens, depends on how we turn problems into potential, and the CP property can be one asset in a collective vision.

So let’s be patient but supportive and encourage the city and provincial governments to develop this parcel of real estate for the good of citizens, all levels of governments, local business and the railway corporation. I think the economic, environmental and social benefits of a change in land use can justify the costs and effort involved, but let’s do the research and collective thinking to make sure.

 

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