The jubilation that followed the Arab Spring has inevitably given way to anxieties about whether these newly liberated societies will master or be mastered by the demons of their past. My Insight broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda discusses what the Middle East may be able to learn from the experiences of Northern Ireland and South Africa, and asks how many of us would have it in ourselves to forgive the unforgivable. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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Our capacity to do violence to one another is the worst tragedy of the human condition, but it makes our still greater capacity to forgive one another all the more powerful.
When I worked in peace and conflict resolution, I met Nadja, a young mother from Bosnia, green in years but withered by experience. She described the week the civil war arrived in her town. One day, she said, she came home to find the couple from next-door laughing and sharing a meal with her daughter. The next day, she came home to find the same couple holding her daughter down while their son raped her, her husband lying dead to one side of the same room.
I can not imagine the anguish her daughter and she must endure every waking moment of their lives. I did not know how to feel when she spoke of the hope they both harboured to one day forgive the people who had brought this horror upon them. All I can say is that they are both surely better people than I am.
We live in an age when the dominant form of armed conflict is no longer international wars between sovereign states, but civil strife within individual nations. Today, the challenge has moved beyond winning the war, to surviving the peace. How does anyone carry on when his mortal enemies return to being his fellow citizens?
In Northern Ireland, an interruption in violence became possible when most Unionist and Republican militants agreed to put down their weapons. However, a lasting peace became possible only when enough families found the strength to honour their dead by living for them instead of avenging them. The peace agreements required victims to accept the release of convicted terrorists, but peace has held.
In South Africa, the fall of Apartheid could easily have led to bloody reprisals. Instead, the Truth and Reconciliation process attempted to meet South Africans’ need to have the full facts of their suffering publicly acknowledged. The peace has left many victims feeling that they lost justice to gain the confessions of the crimes against them, but peace has held.
In the Middle East, countries that have so recently emerged from tyranny face stark choices, which will decide whether they will move forward or collapse back into an abyss of communal revenge. To succeed, they must find ways of satisfying the social need for former oppressors to face some form of justice. Yet, they must also find ways to come to terms with the reality that years of suffering will not be undone. Most importantly of all, they must create a national consensus that the future is more important that the past. None of this will be easy.
Some things are broken so utterly, that they can never be made fully whole again. Some wounds are so deep, that the scars can only become part of who we are. Some crimes are so grave, that there can never be adequate justice on this side of eternity. Ultimately, our only source of comfort lies in our capacity to forgive one another.
I do not know what became of Nadja or her daughter, but I do know that in even contemplating the path of forgiveness, they showed a strength I can barely understand, let alone imagine. I hope they found their way.
The Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption Click the logo for the GOPAC web site
While I was in Jordan seven years ago, I spoke with Adab Al-Saoud, a social worker turned Member of Parliament, about the struggle for freedom in repressive nations. She hesitated during our conversation and regarded me coolly. "Is it possible," she asked, "that you are fetishising democracy? Elected leaders can ravage their people as much as unelected ones, you know."
All these years later, her question still gives me pause. All free societies are democracies, but Adab was certainly correct: not all democracies are free.
To be worthy of its name, a free democracy must be more than just a system of electing governments; it must be a means of holding elected governments to account. Ultimately, election to office is not a licence to rule, but a contract to serve.
Since the collapse of Communism, everyone claims to be a democrat, and no one more so than those corrupt autocrats who pervert elections to legitimise the exploitation of their electors.
Today, the greatest threat to democracy is no longer the explicit ideologies of political tyranny, but the far more insidious tyranny of political corruption.
Corruption robs citizens of our own resources, our fundamental rights, and our very identities as members of a free and equal society. It makes the weak prey to the strong, and delivers control of society into the hands of the unjust. It debilitates the nation, undermines the rule of law, and rots public confidence in democracy.
Across the Middle East, in states newly liberated from old despots, where bloodied but unbowed peoples have sacrificed so much for the sake of democracy, corruption is a crime against hope.
Because of all this, the fight against corruption is the mandate of our age.
GOPAC is a non-partisan, worldwide alliance of serving and retired democratically elected parliamentarians, who have come together as an international fellowship of conscience to combat corruption. Its members assist fellow parliamentarians in their efforts to impose effective democratic oversight on executive authority, to sustain public transparency and accountability across government, and to foster a culture of integrity in public life.
Perhaps most importantly, GOPAC serves as a peer support network for parliamentarians who are prepared to stand up for their citizens and speak truth to power in countries where doing so is an isolating or dangerous choice.
In both new and emerging democracies, one of the surest guarantees of freedom is a vigilant, relentless, and fearless community of parliamentarians standing between our leaders and the levers of power.
Parliamentarians are the watchdogs of democracy, and it is tragic that so many citizens of so many nations perceive our watchdogs as having muted their bark, muzzled their bite, and been neutered by the very powers they were meant to hold at bay. It is a perception that is too often justified, but it is a perception that is just as often desperately unfair.
There are parliamentarians around the world who risk their lives every day to speak for those who would otherwise have no voice, to stare down those who know no restraint, and to make democratic nations free. There are parliamentarians who tilt at the powerful for no better reason than to shield others. There are still parliamentarians who hear the noble call of public service.
It will be one of my life’s great privileges to work with them through the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption.
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Click image for the investiture ceremony
This is an unusual and special blog post for me, because it is the one way I can offer a public thanks to my former colleagues at Equine Canada and the Canadian Equestrian Team, for doing me a very public kindness.
The role enabled me to support our athletes and coaches, as they brought back Canada’s greatest equestrian medal results of all time; to work with our staff and volunteers, as they built the federation’s membership and resources to their highest levels in history; and to speak on behalf of our country, as Canada took a position of leadership in the community of equestrian nations.
The work was never easy, but for all its difficulties, I felt that the work was its own reward, because it allowed me to be part of a true golden age of Canadian equestrianism.
I was, therefore, more touched than I can express when I received the letter from the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Hon David Onley, informing me that I was to be decorated with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, for advancing Canadian and international equestrian sport. The medal is Canada’s newest national state honour.
I am very thankful to David Onley himself, and I am deeply conscious that he would only have nominated me for the medal at the urging of my former colleagues at Equine Canada and the Canadian Equestrian Team.
The medal means a great deal to me, not only because it is an honour from my country, but still more because it is a symbol of affection and regard from the professionals, athletes, coaches, volunteers, and members of Canada’s equestrian community, people whom I am terribly proud to call my peers and friends. I am more grateful to them, and more humbled by their kindness, than I could possibly express. All I can say is thank you.
My final task for the federation will be to serve as the team’s most passionate fan, as they ride unto the field of honour for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Though I will be cheering for them from this side of the Atlantic, my heart will most certainly be with them in London.
Although Canadians have always prided ourselves on being a courteous and tolerant people, our political culture is becoming disconcertingly hysterical and destructive. In my Insight broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda, I argue that this development is not only unworthy of our national identity, but also a fundamental betrayal of the very ideals of democracy. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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There is no worse cancer in a free society than the thuggish impulse to equate dissent as disloyalty. Well before the Roman Republic, free citizens of free nations understood that the greatest patriot is the person with the courage to be the lone voice in the crowd crying out that the Emperor has no clothes. The test of our society’s democratic nature is our instinct to value the right of our fellow human beings to disagree with us.
Because of this, the most perverse aspect of McCarthyism is not that it sought to stifle public debate, but that it did so while wrapping itself in the flag of liberty. During the heydays of the Cold War, US Senator McCarthy and his political accomplices stigmatised thousands of Americans who dared to express dissent as Communist agents. They blacklisted, persecuted, and publicly humiliated innocent people. They attacked free thought as subversion against the state. At its height, the McCarthyists denounced vaccines, fluoride, and public literacy as tentacles of an elaborate Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the American government.
The history of McCarthyism and of the House Un-American Activities Committee has become a cautionary tale to the unwary: the greatest threat to our democracy is not barbarians at the gate, but politicians amongst us ready to pursue their ambitions by demonising anyone who dares to stand up and speak out.
And yet, it seems that history has taught us nothing, as Canadian politics fall thoughtlessly into the clutches of a new McCarthyism.
When Canadians oppose a Cabinet Minister’s plans to expand police powers, the Minister vilifies them as allies of child molesters.
When interest groups support the government, opposition MPs regularly smear them as bigots. When the courts review the conduct of an election, a party campaign accuses the judiciary of attempting to overthrow democracy.
When political parties discuss forming a coalition government - a pillar of Parliamentary process - political operatives claim those parties are fomenting a coup d’état.
When environmentalists criticise government policies, Senators savage them as being anti-Canadian and question whether they would accept funds from terrorists or - and I am not making this up - Martians. Yes, as in creatures from the planet Mars, though presumably carrying Canadian currency.
Senator McCarthy no doubt knew of Marx’s assertion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Fifty years ago, American Senators insisted that their opponents were all Communists; today, Canadian Parliamentarians would have us believe that their opponents are all child molesters, subversives, and extra-terrestrials.
McCarthy was a greater traitor to his country than any imagined Communist, and Canadian politicians who ape his methods are just as surely betraying ours. Their behaviour is a public obscenity and a disgrace to the democracy we elected them to serve. Americans eventually roused themselves from the nightmare of their McCarthyists and cast them aside. The time is long overdue for Canadians to do the same.