Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Sovereign Failure," says Ignatieff, and all our hands have that blood on them

By Michael Ignatieff, Globe and Mail,  September 10, 2011
(Michael Ignatieff is a Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto, and was the most recent leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.)

But a decade into this secret war, no one really knows what price democracy pays, in freedom and self-respect, for the way it defends itself now.

If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less; more accountability and openness, not less. The question is whether the secret power we have allowed to spring up in our name is under any kind of democratic control. Do our elected representatives keep our secret agencies under sufficient scrutiny? Does the press know what is being done in our name?
We have paid for sovereign failure with secret government. Most people accept this, because our enemies have not prevailed. The mastermind is dead, his remains scattered at sea. His followers are in hiding and know they will be pursued to the ends of the earth.
But they created the apocalyptic standard, and the risk now is not just al-Qaeda but any group with the desire and capacity to emulate it.
Having catalogued multiple examples of the failure of both governments and corporations, Mr. Ignatieff sums up with the charge of "sovereign failure." Unfortunately, the answer to his question about whether government (democracy) is in control of the secret power that it created is to protect and defend, is obviously, "No!"
The west has been acting under the ostensible leadership of the United States since the Second World War. And that leadership has depended on models of strength and power that have proven, by now, to be completely obsolete in the face of the kind of apocalyptic human grenades from any quarter it faces.
Clinging to statistical readings on the fiscal, employment, and dividend meters and on the military arsenal purchases, and the capacity for national intelligence and secret surveillance that once defined success as long as the middle class was rising in numbers and in security has proven its clear and obvious limit, and its own self-destructive hubristic blindness.
Both governments and the "media" have worshipped at the altar of what they called empirically demonstrable success, using numbers of growth, charts and graphs and new formulae for their rationale.
As far back as 1986, two presidents of major universities in the U.S. (Yale and Harvard) wrote to the then president of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, letters that clearly lamented "we have been teaching the wrong things to our students: the pursuit of personal wealth for its own sake." (From Straight Talk, by Lee Iacocca). Iacocca was having serious difficulty hiring the best and the brightest from the universities because they could make more money on Wall Street.
For decades, the slogan on the walls of secondary schools and colleges, to motivate students, was some form of "learn to earn" as if the pursuit of money was a legitimate motive to prompt the completion of homework assignments, and a legitimate driving force to make the society "better" including the lives of those students whose parents had, for the most part, far less money, and far fewer luxuries that their offspring.
Making promises in public venues before scribbling and/or recording scribes in the full knowledge that not only will only a single digit percent of the population read and digest the first "reporting" of the commitment, and only researchers will actually do any significant follow-up of accountabilitiy and "holding their feet to the fire," often long after they have left office, or even died, we have a political culture that is essentially void of integrity, with our own complicity of lethargy, apathy, self-absorption and even responsibility for the immediate chores of maintaining a family and a home.
As the public esteem and confidence in the political system and the actors on that stage plummeted, over the last thirty or forty years, so too did the pursuit of the "personal" failings of those actors generate a "hollywood" model of relationship between the citizen and the leaders. The policies and the integrity and the character and the ethics of the people in leadership eroded in the face of 24-7 invasive investigation of private lives the reports of which were "sales-inducers" for ratings and advertising that built careers, egos and reputations of those scribes who found the ladder easy and accessible.
And, eventually, those who held public office were, in many cases, those whose pursuit of personal "power" (just like those university grads who chose Wall Street over Chrysler) dominated the political landscape.
We have not only witnessed a "sovereign failure" many times over, and still do, as Ignatieff suggests; we have experienced a withdrawal from public life of the best and the brightest from at least the last two or three generations. We have also, in the process, replaced a relatively high commitment to and pursuit of the "public good" with the archetype of personal aggrandizement, narcissism and the promotion of vacuuity at the expense of public engagement, study, debate and accountability for both citizens and political leaders.
In short, we have replaced a consciousness and a diligence to preserve and protect and enhance the "body politic" with an acceptance, even an endorsement of "personal power" in all its various forms (public office, mega-incomes, mega-mansions, multi-billionaires) and we have all had a hand in the replacement.
And we will all have to pick up an oar and start rowing the boat in a different, more collegial and more collaborative direction if we are to restore confidence in our public institutions, our political and corporate leaderships, our educational institutions, and our public life, shared by all on the planet as it is. And we will have to extend our rowing beyond the historic volcano in the number of not-for-profits that attempt to put fingers in the millions of holes in the dykes in the face of many social, cultural, political, military, environmental and even survival tsunamis, to the formal political arena.
And all of this will require a new design and execution of the education system based on what is needed by the people, for the people and of the all democracies need and the pendulum will have to shift away from the pursuit of individual self-absorption and self-obsession and even fear, toward the contribution each of us can and must make to the pursuit of the "public good"....that very abstract and even amorphous concept that can only be realized with all the boats in the harbour can and do rise together, thereby creating conditions where AK-47's, or soulder-fired rockets and missiles are not needed for access to food, shelter, water and health care and a decent living for all families.
And only then will we be able to look back at the crisis of the first decade of the 21st century as the gift it must become.

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