Trudeau, Power, & Sir John’s Echo

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative, or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim’s is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters and so, it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into a country. From Britain, came the ideas of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took a written constitution and a federal state, one comprised of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in Civil War, demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. The Confederation delegates stood the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

Power and Sir John's Echo

(Photo: Canadian Colour)

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty including trade, the military, post office, criminal law, currency, and banking. Unlike the United States where, until 1913, the states appointed Senators, the prime minister would populate our upper chamber. The prime minister would also appoint Lieutenant Governors who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. Anything the constitution left out or that came up later, like airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence by gaining control of our constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects like the trans-continental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the TransCanada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged, and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression, and the FLQ Crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate change leaders.

Ignore whether you like or dislike our current prime minister, or his policies, but grant that Mr. Trudeau’s  tour a few months ago indicated his understanding that Canada is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance, and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a nation and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums, and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our prime minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and perhaps even explore my full argument which is in my latest book, published just two weeks ago, and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir John’s Echo.  It’s available at bookstores, Amazon, and here through Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

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An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lies to Divide

Adolf Hitler did not begin by building gas chambers. He began by telling lies to divide. We are now engulfed by too many more.

Brexit campaign buses, billboards, and commercials said that Britain sent £350 million a week to Brussels and it would be available for health care if she left the European Union. Mexicans are mostly rapists and drug dealers who steal jobs and so, once a wall is built and illegals deported, the jobs will return.

The day after winning the referendum, Leave campaign leader Nigel Farage confessed that the 350 million was a lie and the NHS should expect no bonus. We should not expect a similar admission from Mr. Trump for the multiple falsehoods tangled in his Mexican lie. Narcissists never explain, apologize, or admit error. The Trump and Farage lies are not the problem. The problem is that they are accepted by a big enough minority as to become powerful political forces.

Lies That Divide

(Photo: http://www.mirror.co.uk)

We have always been lied to. Tobacco companies said they didn’t know cigarettes were murderous and addictive but they knew for years. Oil companies said climate change was a hoax, years after their own scientists told CEOs the truth. These and similar corporate lies divide us from our money and health. Political lies divide us from each other.

Richard Nixon won office in 1968 based largely on his southern strategy. He said he wanted a return to law and order. Southern whites heard that he would take care of hippies, feminists, and Blacks. Nixon declared a war on drugs. Those responsible for its implementation later admitted that the war was just dog whistle racism understood to mean jailing African Americans.

More recently, Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to ban Muslim women from wearing face-covering niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. The problem was that there was no problem. All Muslim women had always needed to show their faces several times through the long, multi-step process. The only time the niqab could be worn was during the swearing-in ceremony that was completely ceremonial after all the paperwork was done. But the Nixonian dog whistle was heard and understood by anti-Muslim nativists, xenophobes, and anti-immigrant racists.

The lies told during Trump’s nomination fight and the Brexit campaign were easily googled and revealed. But like with Nixon and Harper, those to whom the lies were directed didn’t care. Some were just racists and bigots ready to hear their shameful beliefs legitimized. Many others who believed or dismissed the lies were not racist or dumb. They were desperate. They had been dealt awful hands. The forces stacked against them are too big and faceless to fully comprehend. But the physical embodiments of change were in their towns and on their TVs. They are the others. The others are from different countries, ethnicities, races, religions, or classes. The end of Britain’s industrial era is as tough to understand and accept as the end of post-war prosperity where America was number one with no competition. But it’s sure easy to see the guy with the odd accent running the convenience store or fume at the assembly in Brussels dictating the curvature of bananas ( another Leave lie by the way.)

My faith in Canadians was restored when nearly 70% voted against the divisiveness being sold by Mr. Harper. My faith remains with British and European leaders who will navigate into a new era with compassion rather than bitterness and reprisal. My faith rests with the American people who are even now leaving Trump and the Vichy Republicans to hand Hillary Clinton a landslide.

I believe the truth matters. If those perpetrating demonstrable lies are allowed to lead, then I will need to admit that I’m wrong. The British vote certainly says I am. But my faith abides.

Please leave a comment in the space below to identify a clear lie that you see currently being told by a public figure or institution. Let’s see how large the list becomes with the hope that by laying them in the sun they shrivel. Let us inoculate ourselves with the truth. 

I am looking forward to your list. If you enjoyed this column and would like others to add to the list, please forward it using Facebook or other means. You might also consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

 

Orlando and the Search for Simplicity

The news usually rolls over me but Orlando struck a nerve. For some reason, the overlapping hatreds represented in the reprehensible act dropped my jaw and moistened my cheeks. It led me to consider all that I simply don’t understand. It led me to consider ancient ideas in our modern world. It led me to consider simplicity itself.

I see the world’s religions as birthday party presents. They appear in different sized and shaped boxes and wrapped in various coloured paper but they all contain the same gift. They each offer community and love. We each feel better if we are part of a group and a religion offers a group of millions spread around the globe. Meanwhile, we each feel a little better if unfathomable questions are answered such as why are we here and each offers the same answer – to love one another.

The first gift I get, for we are social animals and community is important. It is what offers warmth and belonging to those who identify as a member of the Maple Leafs nation, or a Jimmy Buffett Parrot Head, or even those collecting friends on Facebook. It is the second one, the offering of love as an answer to difficult questions, that gives me pause.

You see I used to teach world religions and so I carefully read the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. I then read texts about each written by scholars with much bigger brains than mine. It was hard. My struggle was to reconcile the overarching message in each with some of the contradictory lines within them. Each speaks of love for all. But each also promotes intolerant exclusion. Each speaks of the Supreme Being as the only arbiter of justice. But each recommends that we judge and punish on our own. Each promotes the notion of free will. But each demands blind obedience.

Love, the primary message in each of the books, gets lost in the complexity of the contradictions.

Contradictions are fine. We are complicated beings and there are good and bad urges within us all. I am certain that only Frank Sinatra has exited this life with only a few regrets. John Lennon wrote All You Need is Love. In another song he wrote, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.” Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who wrote, “All men are created equal.”

Contradictions become dangerous when we seek religion’s first gift but forget its second. As our lives become jumbled with messages about what stuff we should buy to make ourselves happier, or told to measure ourselves by the size of our cars, wallets, houses, or Facebook friend list, or slashed by lost loves, jobs, or dreams, then we tend to turn to whatever community we can. We turn to simplicity. We yearn for the comfort of simple certainty.

Unfortunately, there are too many among us ready to exploit that yearning by picking one of the many contradictions in the holy books and foisting one side as not a sliver of the truth but the whole truth. The Bible says love everyone but it also says homosexuality is wrong. The Koran says love everyone but it also demands no mercy toward one’s enemy in a time of war.

Donald Trump promotes simple answers to complex questions in his war against “the other.” ISIS does the same thing. They are both doing with the Bible and Koran as the NRA is doing with contradictions within the American Constitution. Ancient documents are being misrepresented and exploited as weapons in modern fights not to unite, as was their intention, but to divide. Not to urge conversations but to end them. Not to have us see the gifts within that would allow us to live together in peace but to reject those gifts and have us separate into smaller and smaller communities and to build walls, literally in Trump’s case, between them.

Orlando and the Search for Simplicty

(Photo: brutalpixie.com)

So today I will weep for the fallen but be wary of those speaking of Orlando by seeking simple explanations and simpler solutions. I will respect those respecting complexity. I will reject those promoting themselves and more division and greater intolerance. I will forget those saying the attack was motivated by religion and so all religion is wrong and respect those accepting that anything as complex as religion will always be available to those wishing to exploit its contradictions for selfish ends. I will also respect those who reject religion altogether as an expression of the free will that all religions espouse. I will respect those whose words and actions promote a broader community and love which, after all, beneath the different paper and within the different boxes are all religions’ primary gift.

And, in the end, I will respect those understanding that we are all in this together and that we must get through this crushing moment and the difficult challenges ahead, together.

Orlando and Simplicty

Honour in All Work and the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides changing oil, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place, and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in All Work

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others. You might even check out my books such as my latest, Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front.

A Speaker’s Rules on Speaking

I’m all about words. With the proper motivation, I’ll write them, speak them, and even sing them. I have long respected the transcendent power of the spoken word and studied public speaking to become better at it. As an author, book promotions have taken me across the country and I’m always humbled by an audience’s attendance and attention and moved by invitations to return. This is what my study and experience have taught me:

  1. The Backside Dictum: As with plays, concerts, and movies, the second you become aware of your ass, the best end has passed. Speakers must respect their audiences. Rather than doing myriad other things, people have opted to devote a sliver of their lives to you and must never regret the decision. Nearly all audiences are captive but must never feel like it. It is the feeling in their end that in the end will have them wish for the end and, consequently, that they should never have come.

Hint: Before approaching the podium, take pen in hand. On your left palm write BB and on the other write the time that your talk should end. BB stands for the primary principle of public speaking: Be brief and Be seated. If you discretely observe your palms throughout your talk you’ll be fine. After all, at the bar afterward (remember I mentioned proper motivation) you want to overhear, “I could have listened all night” and not, “it went on too long.”

A Speaker's Hints on Speaking

  1. The Three Rule: Western society rests on three. Every TV show, movie, or play you have ever seen is based on three. There is the introduction of setting and characters, then the conundrum, and then the resolution. Abner Doubleday understood when he, sort of, invented baseball – three strikes and you’re out and three outs and your team’s out. The three rule applies to public speaking for just like people can only remember seven numbers (that’s why phone numbers are structured like that) they can only remember three arguments. Every good speaker makes three points, not two, and certainly not four or more.

Hint: Whatever you are talking about, boil it down to three points. Each has evidence but never cite more than three. Be blunt. Say clearly that there are three points and number them as you speak. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them – that’s the three hint within the three rule. Of course you know more about whatever you’re on about but always remember that you want them to remember and they will never remember more than three points.

  1. The Show: The best way to demonstrate that you have something to say worth remembering is to remember it yourself. Never read. Reading is for politicians or others whose words are written by others. They are not really speakers at all; they are readers. Recall that the last half of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech – the whole part about the dream – was off script. Robert Kennedy’s moving speech to an African-American audience in which he reported King’s assassination, one of the best speeches in American history, was extemporaneous. Recall every TED talk.

Hint: Memorize your opening lines. Memorize a few sound bites and, of course, your three points. After that simply explain what you know so well. If you think this stuff is interesting then the chances are they will too. Always ask for a lapel mic for without ties to a script you can move around the stage or among the audience. Without reading you can make better eye contact and your moving will force them to shift in their seats a little and that goes back to the backside dictum. Smile. Always be reading the room and silently editing. Make digressions like TV commercials, little breaks before the next part begins. Remember that those who don’t understand the marriage of speaking and entertainment understand neither. Finally, never say um or ah. Any such guttural sound indicates you have forgotten where to simply be silent for a moment suggests thought.

There is more but I remember the three rule. People crave the spoken word. It’s part of who we are. The spoken word pokes memories of bedtime books and the safe murmur of adult voices as we nod asleep. Its power rests gently in the poetry of persuasion. A good speaker honours childhood memories and adult intellectual curiosity. A good speaker understands that it’s the words and ideas that matter and so becomes like a good singer who never gets in the way of the song.

I’m off doing more speeches this week and will try to remember my own rules. Hopefully our paths will cross and you can tell me how I made out. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this column, please consider sending it to others and checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

Seeking the Elusive Community

Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.

Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.

National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.

Seeking the Illusive Community(Photo: http://www.asantecentre.org)

Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.

Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.

National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.

Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.

A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.

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