Monday, December 29, 2014

Revising Lord Acton: Power Metastasizes

Lord Acton is best known for the quotation, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but I would humbly like to offer a revision.  In cases where institutions fail to serve the communities they are intended to serve and wittingly or unwittingly tend to serve the special interests of a faction or clique of a community, it seems more and more likely that power tends to metastasize. 

Governments are increasingly overwhelmed by the range of interests and needs that they are asked to balance off against on another or give due consideration during their decision-making processes. That, along with the technological changes that have accumulated over the course of time have given a wide variety of stakeholders the means to offer an alternative to governments or even oppose them and other long-established institutions.  Those established institutions that we have long taken for granted but are growing rickety in the absence of substantial reforms are no longer the robust responsive institutions we relied on - if they ever were those vanguards of justice.

The fact is that many of those institutions have been flawed and history has recounted may cases where those institutions have squandered their legitimacy in ways the Lord Acton so aptly summed up.  The ideal of those institutions was that they would be places where the rights and needs of all were taken into account and given their due respect.  The failures of those institutions to provide that service to their constituents and form a community that they served fairly has motivated more and more groups to act in a manner that has either provided an alternative means of empowering and serving groups or individual or advocate in some way, whether peacefully or not, for the sake of the group they purport to serve and protect.

Due to the shortcomings or failings of governments, justice systems, school systems, churches or other institutions that we would associate with eminent, columned buildings of beauty, purpose and high ideals, more and more individuals or groups have taken the opportunity to assert influence of their own and earn support because of the declining legitimacy of those institutions that we had so long invested trust in. Some of these new alternatives gain a certain degree of power or legitimacy from various audiences. Corporations gain more legitimacy because of the good will they foster among customers and employees. Environmental groups do the same among their supporters. Religious groups assert their own influence on the conscience of a community.  Countless other groups and subgroups and subcultures each purport to stand for their cause or have their respective missions and within each of these organizations there are groups or individuals who are abusing their power and undermining their legitimacy to divide again and again. 

Power, be it gained via wealth, knowledge, media assets, popularity, natural resources, weapons, collective rights or presence, is multiplying because so few of the groups or institutions or organizations strive to represent or consider the whole.  Therein is the metastasis that is occur much to the detriment of our society.  There are too many people and organization each striving to find their soapbox or their audience that fewer and fewer people seem willing to listen intently to all of the arguments and voices that are striving to be heard.  The flaws that power brings when it is wielded continue to multiply because too many people are striving to gain power for the sake of punishing or being retributive rather than building communities that are founded on more than one interest.

At a time when there is so much cynicism about the role and motivation of governments, the need for leaders who show a command of the complexity of our societies and the diversity of opinions and interests and strengths that seem to be multiplying and spreading rather than unifying into a coherence that can contribute to a vibrancy, resilience and responsiveness that an inclusive community can be capable of.  When we see governments ignoring the realities associated with climate change and there are monthly recurrences of police activities that raise questions about their ability or willingness to serve the entire community within their jurisdiction, there is ample reason to doubt the intentions of our elected officials, but investing the patience and effort required to reform these older institutions will be more successful than efforts to counter these flaws with alternative organizations and structures that may ultimately lack the scope of mission or vision that is required to unite people and build or rebuild communities.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Want Progress on Race in the States? Look at Cop Salaries

As events this year in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City have intensified the harsh glare on race relations in the United States, one question that has not been discussed has been the salaries paid to American police officers or the budgets that American police departments have. The gap between salaries paid to police officers in Canada and the United States is stark with Canadian police officers earning an average of $19,000 dollars more annually.

The wage situation is worse if you looked at the situation from one city to the next throughout the States.  The poaching of Detroit police officers that has occurred since that city went into bankruptcy illustrates this gap as well and according to a recent report by NBC News, the salaries are barely above Canadian minimum wage rates for many of the municipalities comprising metropolitan St. Louis.  Ferguson is in the middle of the pack in the St. Louise area with an average hourly pay of about $22 an hour.

The majority of police officers are getting paid in a range that can put them on a level with administrative assistants, or retail store managers.  It is not reasonable to expect the expertise and range of skills required to effectively handle and defuse the challenges of police work from someone earning the same salary as a manager at a Denny's.  Evidence from Ferguson and from the death of Eric Garner in New York City, suggest that some police officers cannot handle their work any better than the likes of George Zimmerman, who was involved in the death of Trayvon Martin while volunteering with a neighborhood watch program in a gated community in Florida.

The gap between professional police officers - if that is what they can be called when they are making $11.18 an hour - and a volunteer such as Zimmerman, who has been described by many sources as a racist, seems negligible but the institutions who employ and underpay these officers ought to be scrutinized. Police work is becoming increasingly complex and given the budgetary stresses facing police departments such as Detroit's it is highly unlikely that they are able to develop the range of new initiatives to respond effectively to this increased complexity.  In Canada there is a wide range of innovative community policing initiatives that are being introduced, each of which are requiring new skill sets and aptitudes that are far removed from the typical skills of a beat cop.  There may be similar efforts in the United States, but there is every chance that appropriate compensation is an obstacle to introducing new initiatives that would move American policing toward more cooperative, community-oriented models.

This is not to suggest that the race problems in the United States is new or recent.  New approaches to policing that are more community-oriented, or require skill sets other than the old west quickdraw are at an increased premium and at this point it seems that police departments in the United States may be too constrained by a variety of budgetary challenges to break ground on new initiatives and approaches to policing that can improve relationships and cooperations between police departments and the communities they serve.

American policing faces many obstacles - the Second Amendment and the racial issues getting the most type space of late - but the most insurmountable may be the lack of financial resources or perhaps the lack of will to fully support police departments in the United States in innovating approaches to policing that would surmount the barriers that currently exist between police departments and the communities that they serve.

Paying police officers appropriately for the challenging work that they do on a daily basis, to not only protect the public but also to ensure that people have the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty and to uphold the rights of all citizens, including those they are apprehending.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GSA's in Alberta and the Old "Legislation of Morality" Argument

Last weekend I lunched with a circle of older friends who gather regularly to, as we put it, solve the world's problems regale each other with accounts of the week that passed. On the occasion of our most recent gathering one of the more conservative of the group posed the question about what the big deal was with the Alberta government's efforts at splitting the difference with its legislation "addressing" the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA's) in schools throughout the province.
This older, conservative-minded gentle wondered what the big deal was all about and why there was even a need for such legislation, or a more favourably-worded bill being required or preferred and why the cause of Gay-Straight Alliances was one that was worthy of such public opposition.  In stating his opinions about the perceived inutility of the GSA's, he skated ever so closely to the "you can't legislate morality" argument which is a perilously lazy attempt to feign neutrality on GSA's and the matter of school bullying, which many politicians indicate a desire to reduce or - to provide a less effective, more retributive response - penalize.

The kids who favour and wish to form the GSA's have a conscious sense of what community building can do to student life in their schools. By recognizing and accepting homosexuality in the manner that the GSA's intend to do, they enhance the safety of their school for all of the students.  By creating a degree of openness about the topic, they in turn erode the power of parents or students who feel that sexual orientation ought to either be: 1) a matter that ought to be kept private if diversity is going to be acknowledged at all or 2) compliant with their perceived "norms" will a stern response against anyone who expresses a variation on that hetero norm.  Such narrow attitudes result in students feeling entitled to express their opinion, whether physically or verbally through bullying and those students acquire the power to bully because of a narrow determination of "normal."  The presence of GSA's is a step toward broadening the definition of normal or rendering it moot and taking that away the soapbox from which bullies feel they can rail against difference.

My elderly friend still felt there was no need for this to be a matter for government to legislate.  The argument he gave was that if a heterosexual and a homosexual chose to be friends, let them.  In that, is a clear desire to turn a blind eye to the realities of school life. It would be very difficult for friends to stick together in the face of the bullying that one would get for the sake of being different. We can all recall the scenarios in school where one kid in class -- be it the pasty skinned one, the heavy one, the slow one, the poor one, the more heavily acned one or anyone else who was deemed to be a member of that exclusive phylum of target -- got ridiculed and bullied. The last thing that one kid was able and willing to do was stand up for or stand by that kid.  It would take a great deal of will to bear that collateral bullying.  It is tempting to look back on our school years and say that that act of bravery would or could have been committed if it were required, but it was and is. Regularly. The majority of kids would want to be on the right side of those relationships and they simply need the assurance that they are not going to be the only ones to stand up and that they in turn will be safe when they stand for their principles.

If the legislation, the right legislation, regarding the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances ensures that power does not get created among groups of people who choose to be intolerant and instead gives students the opportunities to contribute to forming environments where adolescent men and women have the opportunity to fully recognize and develop their identities at the same pace, regardless of their sexual orientation, then the government would not be merely legislating morality, but taking a long-term, big picture view on the physical, social, sexual and mental health of the next generation of Albertans. Even the most cursory of cost-benefit analyses would prove that worthwhile.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Power in a Looming Winter of Discontent

As 2014 comes to a close, it feels like a particularly bleak year, one in which notions of progress seem to be limited to the technological spheres alone and those baby steps toward social progress seem to have meandered or wandered into a wilderness from which our darker instincts will not allow us to escape.

The news runs over with details about sexual abuse by people who we had ample reason to hold in high regard, whether it has been mellifluous-toned talking head who has held our respect for the last decade or a beloved father-figure who has entertained us and been a part of growing up and childhood for the last half-century.  The surprising reports of these two figures and other sordid tales of sexual abuse almost seem to struggle to get out of the tabloids and compete with the mounting racial tensions that go from simmer to boil as each dusk falls and those protesting against police brutality barely keep a lid on the righteous rage that so easily could be uncorked in response to the apparent ruthlessness that police seem to apply force or power - note that I do not say the law - against minorities in the United States.  The hopes that lessons have been learned in the decades since Watts, Rodney King and more recently Trayvon Martin are trod upon on a daily basis is this much esteemed century or millenium marches on without fulfilling the promise of progress is a global community.

These issues are local rather than geopolitical and the picture there seems bleak as well.  The murders of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in October brought a heightened sense of how our institutions and the people who represent them are rendered vulnerable in ways we had never imagined.  In all of the white noise of the current news as it keeps arriving in wave after seemingly pounding wave, we do not know if the members of the Canadian Armed Forces are able to wear their uniforms safely beyond their bases and posts.  Such are the new normals that the imbalance of this age has unleashed.

It is hard feel optimistic about much at this time and friends who normally don't talk about politics or the state of the world in favour of topics that are more academic, or insignificant or personal have made a point of acknowledging that things feel bleak right now or simply outright said, "Again?!" at the ongoing reinforcement of the possibility that we collectively never learn.

If I really wanted to induce depression I could pile on with ISIS, Russia, Syria and the massive typhoon that the Philipines braces for while the Canadian government continues to avoid acknowledging the need to bolster environmental and climate change policy.  (Not that there's a direct link between the two today, but I risk digressing.)

What seems to be happening on so many fronts is a deterioration of democracy and a fracturing of the elements of our communities or societies that keep competing interests in balance and ensures that various stakeholders in our society are pursuing their own course of action separately in pursuit of their own interests because there is little sense that our institutions are serving everybody or anybody. Let me cite a length quote from John Ralston Saul's recent book, The Comeback. The book is an examination of the re-emerging prominence of indigenous people in Canada but the following passage has meaning well beyond that discussion and the struggles that seemed to be coming from all directions.

"in a healthy democracy, power a is surprisingly limited element.  And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust...  [If] power only matters... then the government feels it has the mandate to do whatever it wants; that the law is there principally to serve power. If democracy is only about winning power and using it, then it has been deformed into a denial of society and of the idea of responsible citizenship." (John Ralston Saul, The Comeback, p. 30)

If our era is one defined by the entropic use of power and the fracturing of society into countless separate interest groups, each with their own narrow horizons and a locus of metastasizing self-interests, then we are going to continue seeing governments wield the implements of power (military, police, financial instruments) in ways that may seem effective, intimidating or substantial, but are merely futile and likely to result in negative repercussions.  If, as individuals, we choose to assert sexist or racist mindsets when we engage with the people that we are supposed to share and build our communities and societies with then we are only going to ensure that more and more people will take to the streets.  At first it will be in vigil with candle in hand, but when and if that fails there will be graver actions that will unfold.

There needs to be an infusion of informed, committed citizenship if we want to see the news get any better.  We need to take the time to consider our aspirations for our neighbours and our neighbourhoods just as much as we do ourselves and if we choose instead to postpone our respect for our collective hopes and aspirations the consequences of delay and the work required to build strong vibrant communities will be much greater than we will anticipate.

Our governments seem disinclined to listen to the people in the communities they are intended to serve, but it is essential that we communicate with them clearly.  The news that is concluding 2014 is such that governments and their institutions seem more detached from us than ever before and the only people who will bring order to this are informed, engaged citizens who are inclined to actively say "enough" rather than reel one more time in the face of events that make us cry in disgust, "again?!"