Monday, August 6, 2007

Waking People Up! - The Mantle of Leadership – Part 2

In an earlier posting I discussed how the mantle of leadership is a heavy responsibility, much of it discharged in an irresponsible and self-aggrandizing manner. I suggested that when power is abused, the people can suffer in many ways: physically, economically, and, perhaps most significantly, spiritually. I also suggested that the world is hungry for direction from those who are selfless and morally centered. Today I’d like begin discussing how to achieve such leadership.

The beginnings of change, I believe, lie in cultivating a more aware citizenry through improvements in education. Such a citizenry would then have the means to resist a phenomenon all too apparent in recent years, the drift toward simplistic thinking, the kind of thinking that allows politicians to go unchallenged in their abuse of rhetoric and logic. Consider such statements as “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” (George Bush); “We aren’t the government; we’re the people who have come to fix government,” (Mike Harris, former Premier of Ontario); “People who criticize the Afghan mission aren’t supporting the troops,” (Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada).

What changes should be made? Ask a Canadian student the historical significance of a man named Macdonald and they might say he constructed the golden arches as readily as they might identify him as Canada’s first Prime Minister, the man responsible for building the Canadian Pacific Railway. I don’t know how it is in other jurisdictions, but in Ontario, only one course in History is mandatory; I would make it required throughout the four years of high school, so that upon graduation, each student would have had some exposure to Canadian, British, Ancient and World History, thereby possessing a tool invaluable to informed democratic participation: context.

Without context, citizens can become pawns in the hands of powerful interests. Take, for example, the commonly accepted assertion of business that continuous downsizing, rationalizing of resources and the pursuit and achievement of ever-increasing profits at the expense of workers is a necessity in today’s global marketplace. If we lack historical context, what choice do we have but to accept as unavoidable the consequent disruption in people’s lives through layoffs, endless pressure to increase productivity, and less and less participation in the profits that their work makes possible?

We must accept it unless we know something of the history of the Industrial Revolution. During the early 19th century, men, women, and children were ruthlessly exploited for their labour and then callously discarded when they had no more to contribute. 14-16hour work days were the norm, and children as young as five entered the factories and coals mines, only to emerge years later, crippled, deformed, incapacitated by lung disease, awaiting early death at about age 25.

It was a time, of course, when there were no benefits, no workplace protections from hazardous conditions, no compensation for injuries, and it was not uncommon for women and children to be beaten if they were late for work or found to be in any other way impeding the production process. Only through the brave and moral leadership of activists, thinkers and politicians were these horrible conditions ultimately ameliorated.

Without this kind of historical context, how can a citizen counter or even disagree with the ever-increasing notion that government is a bad thing and should have very little role in our lives, and that only an entirely unfettered marketplace will somehow ultimately redress all imbalances and problems. For example, one doesn’t have to look hard to find some commentators suggesting that, even though corporations are making record profits, workers need to temper their wage demands and even give wage and benefit concessions. Or that trade with China will promote human rights; if this is so, why has the United States had a trade embargo of Cuba almost 50 years? Aren’t both countries Communist? What is the difference in the suppression of human rights that one country should be traded with and another embargoed? Who can ask these questions if they don’t know basic history?

I will be continuing this thread in my next post.

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