Leadership of the Bridge or the Moon?

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969, front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three-inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return, he called a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. Kennedy and his advisors had no idea of how the goal could be achieved – he set it anyway. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day, and later, Kennedy expressed the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears.

Kennedy did not then micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of bold ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

(JFK announcing moon challenge)

Only a few years later, a smaller headline at the bottom of the Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Senator Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove off a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

(Senator Kennedy observing car being recovered)

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar – not the politician but the playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect the younger Kennedy borther’s belief that ethics, morality, and that rules and the rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there in the Globe and Mail that day. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. And we have the other brother who seemed, when it came to the crunch, to understand only the arrogance of privilege; the hubris to believe that he was above ethics, morality, and decency.

And now, we cringe as our leaders twist themselves into knots trying to appear like one Kennedy but somehow, too often, appearing as the other. Too many claim to have our short and long-term interests in mind while clearly considering only their own, or, at least, those of the donors who helped get them where they are.

Leadership is tough and, as JFK proved, it does not take a particularly nice person to do it well. Leadership is essential in a time of crisis whether the existential threat of something as consequential as the Cold War or a personal crisis that demands doing what is right according to principle and not the protection and advancement of oneself.

That dichotomous choice of leader and leadership is especially important right now as we navigate through the pandemic, economic recovery, climate crisis, and racial reconciliation. We need smart, serious, principled, honest people and we need them right now so that we might exert our agency in ways that will matter most to us and our grandchildren. We need the leadership not of the bridge but the moon. 

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Masks and Circles

A mask has become a statement. It says I care about my health and yours. Or it says you have surrendered your liberty. I think a mast is even deeper than that.

You see, I see us all as the enlightenment’s willing adherents. It began when a number of 17th-century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently, and with variations on a theme, argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion of linear progress was perfectly fine until challenged by the bloody trenches of the First World War, the extermination camps of the Second, and now COVID’s costs. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line after all. Perhaps Indigenous spirituality was on to a more fundamental and enduring truth long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and their buddies insisted they were wrong. Maybe it’s not about lines but circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Indigenous North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in many circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

(Photo by Jeff Dean via Getty Images)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are into our second year of the pandemic and people are tired of how it has disturbed their lives. I bet people grew tired of the sacrifices demanded during the world wars too. Progress no longer seems linear. The air has become smudged with attacks and broken promises. New facts are dismissed as proof of old lies. Because we can’t trust everything we are told to trust nothing.

Amid the screaming on cable news, social media, and street protests we can see frustration that the enlightenment’s version of linear progress may not be true. More than that, if we look carefully, we see circles asserting themselves.

Some want their circles to be small. They say we should be loyal to and responsible for only ourselves and immediate families. Everyone of a different class, race, religion, or region be damned. Others allow a little broader circle of compassion and argue that we should also feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country. Those outside our locked borders should be left to themselves. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kick down the ladder. Still others, however, expand their circle further. They argue that we are all human beings and so we should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all.

When boiled to its essence, our thoughts regarding staying home, wearing masks, and sharing vaccines are all about whether we believe enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that Indigenous spirituality is right. Is it really all about circles – our societal and personal circles. It is about how we interpret progress and how broadly we draw our circle of loyalty and responsibility. Who knew a small piece of cloth could be so deeply powerful?

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The French Challenge

It’s wrong. I live in a bilingual country. I have written books and newspaper columns and yapped across the country one way or another about Canada’s history and politics and yet I don’t speak French. It’s also embarrassing. It’s the embarrassment that finally moved me to action.

Our daughter and two grandchildren live close by and have made up our tiny bubble since the pandemic began. When Ontario’s schools did not reopen after Christmas, my wife and I offered to help our daughter continue to work from home by having our grandchildren at our place every day to support them through their online learning. It was much harder than we anticipated. The grade 7 and kindergarten teachers did their best to keep them engaged while providing lots of asynchronous activities and assignments. The kids are fun and polite but keeping up with them was taxing.

The real problem was that both are in French immersion. My wife speaks French moderately well. But first thing Monday morning I was reminded of having stupidly quit French after earning a dismal mark in Grade 9. I was stuck asking a five-year-old if she could please translate for me so I could help her to properly draw the penguin.

By the end of the first day my decision was made. I want to speak with my grandchildren. I need to learn French. But how? Sorry, comment?

I found You Tube ripe with people willing to teach me French. After dismissing a few intense men and a far too chirpy millennial, I chose Alexa. She’s great. Alexa offers short lessons that move so slowly that even I can follow along. She assumes I know nothing which, sadly, is true. Alexa is fun because she seems to edit nothing so you see her flub a line, laugh, and try it again. It makes her human while allowing me license to mess up.

(Photo: tinytap.it)

I have always admired people who speak more than one language. My first weeks of lessons had me admiring them more. Who knew, for instance, that in speaking French I have to know if a bank or banana are masculine or feminine? Who decides such things? Is there a committee somewhere in Paris? Has the women’s movement or Me Too changed any of its decisions? And what about giving me a reliable rule so I have at least a fighting chance of remembering – such as if a word ends with an “e” then it’s feminine. But, of course, that would be too easy. It only works about 75% of the time. It’s like the English “i” before “e” spelling rule that has so many exceptions it’s a wonder anyone ever noticed the pattern in the first place.

And who decided that the French language would have four distinct ways of saying something as simple as, for example, the word “the?” And who decided that a French speaker can sometimes throw a “t” between words that means nothing but somehow someone decided makes the sentence sound better? I will confess to asking Alexa some rather pointed questions. But she’s patient. When she says this next part may be little tricky, it means that I will be devoting the rest of the day wrestling with its baffling contradictions. I desperately try to understand rather than memorize. Alexa forgives me…I think.

I’m learning slowly. The kids are back at school now and so I’ve got more time with Alexa. Both kids giggle at my pronunciations and tell me when I say something that makes no sense at all. They do their best to help. It’s actually fun that they get to teach me something that, we all know, they will always be better at than me. Wish me luck. Sorry, souhaite moi bonne chance.

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The Pandemic Has Changed Nothing

Time walks but change leaps. The current pandemic is not changing anything as much as it’s accelerating changes that were already in motion.

            Consider the primary engine of our capitalist society: our buying stuff. In 2010 we purchased 5% of our consumer goods online. Ten years later, just before the first big shut down, we were buying just 16% of consumer goods online. Then, in only two months, that figure leapt to 27%. By October, despite stores having been reopened since the summer, 70% of Canadians reported that they would be buying Christmas gifts online. When stores reopen after the final wave’s lockdown they had better have shifted to online sales because the slow creep toward shopping through our laptops rather than their front doors will have leapt forward to such a degree that it will not slip completely back.

            Companies that enjoyed a decade of change in just a few weeks had been around for a long while and growing slowly. Apple, for instance, had taken over 40 years to reach a valuation of one billion dollars. When the world locked up in March, Apple leapt to 2 billion in the next five months.

            Meanwhile, as American federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan once famously observed, “You can only see who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  Lots of companies had been bare and barely hanging on with massive debt and failing business models. The virus accelerated their demise. Companies that have declared bankruptcy since the pandemic arrived include J. Crew, JC Penney, Cirque du Soleil, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Gold’s Gym, Briggs & Stratton, Reitmans, and that company that stole an afternoon of my life that I will never get back – Chuck E. Cheese. The world’s oldest multinational corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, is teetering. They all could have survived longer, dog paddling away in their birthday suits, but the pandemic accelerated their drowning.

            The most consequential change that COVID accelerated has been our conception of the role of government. The one-two punch of the Depression and Second World War fundamentally altered how we perceived government’s role. The twin crises led the overwhelming majority of us to support the idea that government’s job was to balance the playing field to give us all a shot at fulfilling our potential. Its new mandate included keeping us all healthy, helping us when we became college and university students, new parents, unemployed, sick, or old. We believed we were all of the same community and that paying taxes was our shared responsibility.

            By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War, OPEC Oil crisis, and runaway inflation seemed to show that government was unable to fix all problems and was causing others. That notion, coupled with the fading memory of the Depression and WWII, led to a new concept of government. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Britain’s Thatcher and Canada’s Mulroney rode the wave of anti-government sentiment. A generation saw governments’ reach shrink, publicly-owned assets sold, and programs dismantled. Taxes, we were now told, were not a way to take collective action and the price for living in a civilized society but robbery. They were cut because individual action was touted as more efficient that collective action and because less government revenue would “starve the beast” and force a further retrenchment of its power.

            But then the pandemic happened. All governments made mistakes as they learned more about the virus but all at least tried to do something. The shameful incompetence of the American government demonstrated the valiant, science-based efforts of others and the need for calm, experienced, honest and able leadership.

            Political leaders who maintained self-serving partisanship were laughed at, scorned, and when the people had a chance – most notably in the United States – sent packing.  Politicians who insisted on continuing to divide us through dangerous rhetoric appealing to the basest among us were rejected such as Mr. Sloan who was thrown from the Conservative Party and Alberta’s Mr. Kenney who has seen support plummet.

            September 11 and the 2008 Great Recession had been slowly swinging the pendulum back toward a belief in the positive power of government. The pandemic has accelerated that change so that we find ourselves today where we may have been a decade from now. Pity the politician who now fails to see that there is a new appetite for tackling big problems through bold government action. We all saw the world quickly clean itself from the skies of Mumbai to the canals of Venice and we are now ready to tackle the existential crisis of our generation and fight climate change. We are also now ready to fight the long festering embarrassments of income inequality and racial injustice. We are ready to debate, compromise, and move in collective action with our votes and tax dollars.

            The pandemic has put us into an age akin to the post-Depression, post-WWII era when we fought and survived together and due to the fight became steeled to fight together some more for what was right. Faith in government always swings to and fro and the change back toward a faith in government was coming. It’s now here. Let’s see if, together, we can do some good.

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An Old Image and New Inspiration

A photograph can change our mind. It can change a lot of minds.

Let’s consider an example. In January 1968, the United States had been actively engaged in the Vietnam War for three and a half years. (Canada was involved too but that story is for another day.) Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one day, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas captured all or most of every South Vietnamese city. In an action that took only five seconds, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, casually approached a Viet Cong suspect who was being held on the street. Loan fired his pistol into the suspect’s right temple, killing him instantly.

Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of the bullet’s impact. The photograph appeared on television and in newspapers around the world and across America. It changed minds. Subsequent polls indicated a significant uptick in Americans opposing the war. Within months, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term and all presidential candidates campaigned on ending the war.

Many other photographs have had similar effects. I am betting you can easily picture the lone protester standing before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the determined look on Terry Fox with the Trans-Canada Highway stretching forever behind him, and the red fireball of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. They touched our hearts and changed our minds. But there is one in particular that affected us then and that we need again to weave its magic.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders peered out a small hatch window as his Apollo 8 spacecraft was beginning its fourth of ten orbits around the moon. He was gobsmacked. Grabbing his Hasselblad camera, Anders floated weightlessly to another window for a better view and snapped an image of the earth rising over the moon’s gray wasteland, reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue against the blackness of space.

(Photo: NASA)

NASA released the photograph on December 30. It was placed on a stamp and was seen in newspapers and magazines. The year had been horrendous. Americans had endured more of their children returning dead or damaged from a war in which fewer believed, a presidential election that had seen more of their children beaten by Chicago police, race riots that had set cities ablaze, and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. Canadians suffered widening generational, gender, and racial divisions, bombs killing innocents in Quebec, and domestic terrorists throwing rocks at their prime minister. Tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia and tear gas scattered protesters in Paris, London, and Berlin.

And then, for a moment, with that terrible year in which it looked like the centre would not hold nearly over, everyone paused before the power of the picture of the little blue ball in space. The earth hung there without the invisible borderlines for which so many lives had been sacrificed. For a moment, it looked like we were not divided by nationhood, race, gender, religion, or the many other social constructs invented to define us and others. It looked like we were one. The picture also spurred the nascent environment movement, informed by the revolutionary concept that we are one people on one planet. Anders said that like millions of others the photograph made him realize, “This is the only home we have and yet we are busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests.”

If the year 1968 was terrible, 2020 is worse. But in tragedy there is hope. Maybe the global pandemic urges us to recall what the photograph had to say so many years ago – we are all in this together. The vaccines are here but none of us will be safe until all of us are safe – all of us; everywhere. Perhaps the photograph asks us to consider that while each country must commit to combatting climate change that none will be successful until we all are successful. Further, as we emerge from our isolation and all the stores reopen, maybe the photograph will remind us that we make and buy too much unnecessary stuff because it eventually all ends up getting thrown away and there really is no away.

The pandemic, climate change, and rampant, empty consumerism remind us that mother nature is always the last at bat. And even scarier is that mother earth does not need saving. If we fall to another pandemic, ignore the changing climate, and succumb to shopping as a leisure activity to fill holes in our souls then the earth will be just fine. We, of course, will be gone – victims of our greed and stupidity; our refusal to read obvious signs; and our stubborn refusal to heed the potent message of William Anders’ photograph.

Let’s look at the picture again. Let’s really look at it this time. Hopefully, with so much at stake and a better future to be forged from the current madness we’ll not just see it but hear it.

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One Pandemic – Three Ideas

A crisis is a cruel teacher. It offers the test first and then its lessons. Among COVID’s lessons is the potency of three ideas too often misconstrued, dismissed, or ignored.  

(Image: BreakthroughMarketing)

Marx was right. It’s all about class. Nineteenth century German political philosopher Karl Marx argued that we either own the means through which stuff and services are produced or work for those who do. Our relationship to our society and each other, he wrote, is based on where we are within the layers of wealth and work.

            Nearly 160,000 small businesses are at risk of going bust as soul-crushing unemployment continues to drain savings and hope. Meanwhile, since the pandemic began, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth rise by $24 billion. Identifying Ontario’s COVID hotspot as Toronto is a sad lie. Rosedale is fine. Jane Finch is suffering.

            COVID’s infection rate among people earning more than $150,000 a year is 42 per 100,000. Among those making under $30,000 it is 223. These numbers will persist as many leave small, multi-generational apartments and ride a crowded bus to a minimum wage job while others order yoga pants online to enjoy a stretch while taking a break from their ergonomically designed chair in their nicely appointed home office. Women and racial minorities have suffered inordinate hardships but Marx would point to many middle- and upper-class women and people of colour doing just fine thank you.

            Maslow was right. Abram Maslow was a 20th century American psychologist who argued that we all strive to ascend a hierarchy of needs. We begin by seeking adequate food, drink, and shelter. We are then able to pursue safety, and then love and belonging, followed by self-esteem, and, finally, a feeling of self-fulfillment that he called self-actualization. COVID showed us that no matter where we are on the hierarchy, we can quickly slide back down. I live in what city-centric people call cottage country. In the pandemic’s early days, I heard neighbours insist that our one and only grocery store should deny admittance to non-residents – the cottagers – who were stocking up on our food and leaving us short.

            Over 50% of Canadians report that COVID is battering their sense of self-worth and has appreciably worsened their mental health. Alcohol and drug use is increasing along with family violence, fear, and anxiety. Separation from friends and family is eroding feelings of love and belonging. Televised scenes of rioting in American streets, narcissistic madness in the White House, and COVID’s ruthless second wave is straining our sense of safety. Employers used to think that employees would be less efficient but happier working from home but it ends up that the opposite is true. It’s tough to seek self-actualization while home schooling the kids, enduring yet another damned Zoom meeting, missing friends, and hoping that maybe the family can get together next Christmas.

            Macdonald was right. The race-based policies of our first prime minister and primary founder Sir John A. Macdonald were inexcusable. But let’s shelve that fact for now to recall that his leadership placed Canada’s dominant power with the federal government. Only the federal government, he said and so the constitution now deems, has the fiscal capacity and political legitimacy to respond nationally to a national crisis. Its Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped nearly 9 million of us to stay home and safe. It is now transitioning to a more flexible Employment Insurance program. The federal government shut the borders and signed contracts with those who will provide vaccines. Premiers worked hard within their jurisdictions while effusively praising the federal government’s invaluable support and initiatives. We need only look to our southern neighbour with their dominant power in the states, and no equivalent of Elections Canada, to see how right Macdonald was to put power where it belonged.

            We will get through this. Rebuilding will involve consideration of national long-term care facility standards, national emergency preparedness, a national day care program, and a universal basic income. And each debate will echo the voices of Marx, Maslow, and Macdonald.

(This article appeared in the Toronto Star on November 30. If you enjoyed it, please pass it along to someone.)