Monday, March 18, 2019

Decrying scarcity, parsimony, seniority and resistance

Deeply embedded, to the point of becoming imperceptible, in our Canadian, and  other political cultures, are two qualities that serve conflicting purposes:
The two qualities are “tightfistedness” and “pay your dues” (read seniority trumps integration and acceptance)

Coming from a deep vein of cultural parsimony (in public relations terms: frugality) and status (in real terms: control), these two qualities have their root in scarcity, fear, anxiety and obsession with control. Those in charge, in power at the top, in every organization, school, church, town, city, province and corporation consider their “position” as more valued and valuable than those over whom they preside. They do, however, scrupulously and blatantly try to hide this belief, pretending to be “comrades” or “buddies” or “friends” with those for whom they are responsible. The worst cliché of this pattern is the parent who surrenders, abdicates, abandons his/her parental responsibilities to acquire a “buddy-buddy” relationship with the child(ren).
Ingratiation by “leaders” is so unbecoming and so abhorrent as to be considered reprehensible; it smacks of weakness, co-dependence, obsequiousness and manipulation. Taking many forms, such as flattery, exaggerated cheer-leading, anticipation of the most base desires of the “child” and then going out of the way to meet those desires, as well as refusing to confront when appropriate….these are just  of some of the subtle expressions of abdication.

And then, at the other extreme, is the person in leadership who abuses the post, by demeaning, denigrating, dismissing, ignoring, distorting and otherwise reducing the supervisees into oblivion. However, between the opposite ends of the continuum, are many much more subtle, yet just as nefarious, expressions of contempt, disdain, “challenging and testing” as most male leaders like to phrase it…(read: make him earn a spot on the team).

Imagine, for a brief moment, dear reader, if this kind of culture were to dominate in the classrooms of the nation. No new student would ever be permitted to “cross the threshold of “proving” himself worthy of the teacher’s respect given the brief time allotted to a school year. Tests, designed to demonstrate the student’s grasp of concepts (and probably still data) would be designed and administered to “fail” the student. (Recall the pride of the Economics prof. who announced to his freshman class: “look to the right, then to the left….3 of you 5 will fail this course!”) Opportunities for leadership, too, would be curtailed, restricted only to those who are seniors or at least juniors. Similarly, with new teachers, most of whom have some of the best and most innovative and creative thoughts and strategies just jumping to try them out. They would be held back from taking positions of leadership, while those with seniority, often simply because they have it, are considered the “cultural and thought leaders in the school. I am hearing not to silent whispers, “Schools are different from corporations, town councils, service clubs and churches, and the analogy does not apply!”


If that is correct in factual terms, then the “status-seniority-hierarchy-trust-worthiness” thing has been allowed to take over. New ideas, on the other hand, are the life-blood of individuals, classrooms, shop floors, board rooms, ER’s, OR’s, court rooms, and especially sanctuaries, whether we are open to acknowledging it or not. And the exercise of power, in its most healthy, effective and humane manner, has to do more than give “token” or lip-service validation to both new people and new ideas. There is a bibliography of material being spewed out of publishing presses, laptops, television and computer screens, and over phones and tablets that demonstrate conclusively the threat from the abuses of power, by those wielding it. Their personal, professional reputations are being deeply wounded by their own acts of co-and-omission. Their attitude of “entitlement” is and will continue to damage the immediate potential for real, far-sighted, well-informed and researched policies in a plethora of sectors, but also to the development of trust and confidence, and “obedience” through loyalty to our institutional structures in our young people.

Call it arrogance, impertinence, insouciance, deviousness, downright absolutism or merely chicanery; this rusting out of the reasonable expectations of ordinary people in how power has been, should be and even must be exercised, through the willful acts, statements, attitudes and even beliefs of many in positions of leadership will, inevitably, (and not because it says so here) bite the culprits. Yet that is not the biggest problem. It has and will continue to bite all of us, given the abdication of reasonable responsibility for the discharge of power and leadership in all sectors.

Of course, the headlines shout the abuses of political power. Nevertheless, we must not let those headlines hide the abuses of power, much less noticeable and less nefarious perhaps, but still imitating “higher” abuses and thereby contributing to a culture of both impotence and dereliction of duty. Whether this dereliction of duty is to the small social club, the small business operation, the public organization or the governance of a jurisdiction (over which there are fewer and less courageous reporters digging into malfeasance, injustice and arrogance, thereby normalizing abuses, through silence and default).

Entitlements, of all kinds, demand exposure, even if they are mere social irritants, like gnats in our soup on the patio. The former executive who demands a head-table seat, supplanting a current executive, so s/he can introduce a guest from the head table (an introduction just as readily and acceptably done from the floor) is abusing his position in the organization. The teacher who takes 90 students back forty-five minutes into a lecture, to bring his principal up to date, is abusing his power, for his own political ambition.

The long-term office holder in an organization, (and this is especially flagrant in churches!) who thinks, and believes that s/he is the gate-keeper on church membership, policy, teaching curricula, bill-paying, renovation and re-decorating is abusing the organization, as well as the individual people in the pews. No self-respecting person, new or old, can or should tolerate such abuse, and yet it happens everyday, right under our noses. And the normal response: “Well, s/he has been here for a very long time, and knows how things are done here!”

Similarly, in corporations, political parties, and most other organizations, long tenures accumulate territories and files of influence just because of durability, and often not because of ingenuity, creativity or adaptability or healthy leadership. And then we all throw up our hands when a new and relatively substantial and obviously worthy idea peeps through our consciousness, as if such an idea would overthrow “the established” tradition/culture/habit/modus operandi. Intellectually, we know and accept that conditions in all situations, circumstances are constantly changing; this is not a trait only of schools where children themselves are growing, developing and changing right before our eyes. It may be more obvious there, because it is in our faces every day. Voices, bodies, faces and even attitudes are in such flux that change is the only reliable constant.

And adapting, riding, surfing, dancing, championing and enjoying the changes are options available to educators, all of them making the profession both enjoyable and rewarding. Why then, following schools, colleges and universities, do we slide back into an attitude that sacralizes permanence, tradition, status, seniority, tenure and then equate those attributes to trust, acceptance, dependability, reliability and trustworthiness.

Are we so repulsed by, frightened by, resistant to, and troubled by new ideas, change, an impertinent question or observation, a new piece of information that challenges our “mind-set” and belief system that, as we do with death, we put it out of our minds, our faces, and our readiness to open and listen?

So, you say, “Well, the context is everything! We can accept a new idea if the project stage is in its infancy, if we are just brainstorming for new ideas, and if we are facing some kind of crisis. Yet, we would quickly become exhausted if we were to face a new idea every day. And how could any new idea really be evaluated, implemented and tested if we were to be open to them all. We have to filter, and discuss and debate the relative merits of each new idea; otherwise we will be failing to do what we have been charged with accomplishing.”

And it says here that each situation, in every country, town, city, village and hamlet is changing so fast, with new information, and new ways of calculating new equations and new expectations of all persons, tools, machines and organizations that our clinging to “how we have always done it” can no longer be called acceptable. We are lagging behind in our willingness, and our ability to tackle the most pressing problems facing each of us: inequality, planetary survival, poverty, resistance to anti-biotics, species eradication, access to education, health care, opportunity and purpose and meaning.

Oh, there are zillions of ideas, many of them siloed on a single bus, or in a single lab, or in a seminar, or in a pub-debate, or in a movie or television script, like little fresh-water springs shooting out from the earth, right in front of our eyes. And, yet, it says here, one of the main reasons they are not gathering public support, especially in our political and corporate board rooms, is that those in power see them as threats to their personal, entitled positions of power.

Steve Case, venture capitalist, was featured on CBS’ 60 minutes, last night, riding his “Rise of the Rest” red bus into the heartland of America, in search of new business ideas. With a jury of his peers, Case reviews submissions, (in Canada, CBC’s Dragon’s Den attempts a similar approach) and award seed money to the most promising business venture. When asked why he spends 20 hours/day riding a bus, he responds, “I love these entrepreneurs and I want to get everyone on the bus! Believing that the east and west coasts of America have received all the attention, developed the new ideas, grown the large percentage of new business ventures, while the middle of the country has been left behind, Case is putting up his own money (and that of other venture capitalists) to try to right the imbalance, not only of business opportunities but also of community hope and optimism.

Of course, it is far easier for a venture capitalist to hire and paint a bus and ride into the hinterland looking for new ideas than it is for a state or national government to do the same thing.


There are more resources, and more options for a state, or federal government to roll up their sleeves and mount similar venture support systems, if there was a political will to do it. Unconventional? Perhaps. Radical? maybe. Inappropriate? Certainly not! Shaming the various levels of government? Could be.

And yet, governments and many of our institutions are so mired in their own cement perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and habits (most of them directed to serving the private interests of those in charge) that the world is beginning to “burn” while  Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Ottawa, Bejing, Mumbai, Rome “fiddle.”

Only this time, that old adage is less metaphorical than literal, for the first time in human history.

And of course, those in power, clinging to their “rungs” on the ladder of social and political status, defer to the “cost” argument as their default position on any new idea. It will cost too much; it is an unproven concept that needs much more study so that we get it absolutely right (“after all, we will not allow ourselves to make a mistake!”) We build bridges to take the traffic of the last decades, not to accommodate the traffic flows of the next two decades. We envision new ‘systems’ by deconstructing the old ones, to suit the political class of the day. (Example, the demolition of the Ontario health delivery system, in order to remove the salaries of administrators, whether or not the system was working effectively. The political class ideology of cost-cutting (euphemistically labelled frugality, putting money in the pockets of citizens, and leaner administration) will only have to be confronted by a future government willing to face the challenges of the omissions and the delays and the decline in services that the cost-cutting will impose.

Frugality, too, imposes a template on the purchase of retired military submarines, fighter jets, (all in need of refurbishment), as it does on payroll cost-cutting like the imposition of the Phoenix system. Known to be inoperable prior to its installation by those civil servants charged with its implementation, only they refused to bring that fact to the attention of their superiors, refusing to bring truth to power, in order to protect their own jobs, reputations and careers. Thousands of ordinary public servants working under this system have received no pay, overpay, or intermittent pay for at least three years, leading to lost careers, internships, houses, families and reputations, through no fault of the federal government workers. Designed as a way to reduce costs, the boondoggle has resulted in budget over-runs of millions of dollars, at last estimate some $50 million more to fix it, if it is ever truly fixed.

Keeping to the “tradition” also raises its ugly head in the testimony of Gerald Butts, he of the Prime Minister’s Office, when he told Trudeau that if he accepted a declined Cabinet appointment from a prospective Minister (Jody Wilson-Raybould, to Indian Affairs, for legitimate and publicly declared reasons of opposition to the hated Indian Act), he would find himself facing interminable refusals from others. How presumptuous! How inappropriate! How arrogant!

Another sign that what “has been” has become sacred, from a process perspective, unless and until, of course, there is a political “need” that overrides the proscribed legal process (as in the political interference with the Attorney General’s refusal to intervene in the Prosecutor’s decision to refuse a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, previously enshrined in law, to please the corporate benefactor of the Liberals, SNC-Lavalin.

We vacillate between occasional bursts of “damn-the-costs” to “frugality in the extreme” as if our governments were careening between two lethal political threats, a crashing rock of public humiliation at spending too flagrantly, and the equally demeaning prospect of parsimony, as if we are unable to envision a balanced approach.
As with our exercise of power, we careen between superficial unctuousness (false modesty) and obsequiousness on the one hand, and overweening abuse even in the most private and intimate exchanges. It is not only the middle of America that has been and continues to be left behind. We are all being left behind in terms of our relegation to the back of the proverbial public bus, many of us clinging to the rear bumper, like so many of those freedom riders in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

Trouble is, many of us have not quite cottoned onto the full implications of  the ways by which power is being abused by even the most “likeable” people, in our clubs, churches, town councils, chambers of commerce, school boards, banks, financial institutions, corporations and of course, provincial, state and national governments, including our national security apparatus, our military and our judicial systems.    

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