Tag Archives: politics

Get Informed! Get Political!

election“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”
– John F. Kennedy

On Sunday, 2 August, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament and start what will be the longest election in Canada since 1870. Many were quick to point out how much this will cost the Canadian public, or the advantages the Conservative Party of Canada may have with its larger funding base, but there is one other thing to consider: more time to make an informed decision.

As the quotation above by JFK insinuates, informed voters are key to a functioning democracy. And the library is an obvious place to help you make that informed decision on poll day. As we showcase every February during Freedom to Read Week, the library is a staunch defendant of freedom of speech, which means we make sure to have every side of the discussion as long as books and articles are written on it. Libraries have a central role in the democratic process and it all has to do with providing that information to anyone who requests it. So I am going to list some books that may help you be more informed about some major topics that are being discussed this election.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” – Andrew Carnegie

Leader Biographies

Publishing a biography before an election was something that was more common in the United States with Jimmy Carter starting the trend, while Canadian politicians usually published their memoirs after their term in office: e.g. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Brian MulroneyKim Campbell, Paul Martin. The first to launch a book before a campaign was Jean Chrétien with his title Straight from the Heart, and many candidates have since followed suit: Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton (though his book was not a memoir but rather a manifesto) .

Here is a list of the most recent books on the leaders vying for the position of prime minister.

Justin Trudeau published his autobiography Common Ground last year, just five months after becoming the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and one full year before the fixed election date of 19 October. This memoir outlines the major moments in Mr. Trudeau’s life that have prepared him for his political career.

Next we have Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, who published her book around the same: Who we Are: Reflections on my life and Canada. This is described as a cross between an autobiography and a manifesto as it details her life but also her vision for Canada.

Just recently Tom Mulcair published his own autobiography, Strength of Conviction, which discusses his upbringing and political career, and more specifically how his experiences have shaped his vision and beliefs for Canada.

Finally, Globe and Mail journalist and award winning author John Ibbitson took a one year leave of absence from the paper to write Stephen Harper’s biography. The new book simply titled, Stephen Harper, was set to be released in September but the early start date of the election pushed its publication up to 12 August. While many books talk about Stephen Harper’s policies and rise to prime minister (e.g. published in the last two years: The Longer I’m Prime Minister by Paul Wells, Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s new conservative agenda by Brooke Jeffery, Harperism : how Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada by Donald Gutstein, and Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s radical makeover by Michael Harris) this biography takes a deeper look into his private life, and his relationships with Reform Leader Preston Manning, his family, and even his cats. 

Election Issues

In order to properly assess the leaders’ promises, it is important to get a good understanding of the situation they’re talking about. I will present three major issues that have been hitting the headlines recently and give a few books that have been recently published on those issues.

Senate

With the trial of Mike Duffy and the scandal involving other disgraced Senators, there have been many discussions on the role and relevance of the Senate. Here are a few books that discuss the possibility of reform and the scandals that occurred:

A People’s Senate for Canada: not a pipe dream by Helen Forsey
Our Scandalous Senate by J. Patrick Boyer
Duffy: Stardom to Senate to Scandal by Dan Leger

Economy

The economy comes up in every election, and here are two books on this subject published this year:
The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen harper’s Takeover of Canada by Mel Hurtig
Stalled : Jump-starting the Canadian Economy by Michael Hlinka

Foreign Policy

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership going on during the election, and a constant shift in the international theatre, understanding Canada’s place in the world can be difficult. Here is one book that discusses Canada’s historic relations with China, and another that looks into Canada’s role in the world in the future:
Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper by Paul Evans
Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World by Derek H. Burney and Fen Osler Hampson

Of course these are only a few of the topics that are important. Many more could be highlighted, and if any of these or any other topic interests you, make sure to check out your library for any election queries you may have. We’ll be glad to help!

Remi

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Laissez les bons temps rouler!

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture – even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.                                                                                 –Ruta Sepetys

New Orleans has always seemed like a mythical city to me, something along the lines of Shangri-La or Cibola. Perhaps that’s because of the many names the city is known by – Crescent City, the Big Easy, the Big Sleazy, NOLA, Nawlins…with so many names it’s possible to believe that they all refer to different places. But, no matter what you call it, given the joyous traditions of music, food, and celebrations it’s easy to understand why some people refuse to live anywhere else.

There’s definitely a dark side to New Orleans that somehow adds to the fascination of the city. With a history of discrimination, poverty, corruption and violence, New Orleans has not always been a fun place to live. In spite of the dark times, or perhaps because of them, the allure of New Orleans continues to captivate people. My New Orleans: ballads to the Big Easy by her sons, daughters and lovers is a collection of essays that explores all that there is to love about this legendary place.

For a more visual selection, Very New Orleans: a celebration of history, culture and Cajun country charm by Diana Hollingsworth Gessler is a gorgeously illustrated book that brings to life all of the lush greenery and historic architecture that is at the heart of New Orleans.

The World that Made New OrleansRight from the start, New Orleans has been a city in a constant state of change. As Ned Sublette recounts in his book The World that made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. New Orleans began in a brawl between England, France and Spain. Over the centuries, New Orleans has seen more than its share of trouble and conflict between people, however, the darkest time in New Orleans was caused by Mother Nature.

Not Just the Levees Broke Five Days at MemorialHurricane Katrina left a huge swath of devastation in her wake, which almost destroyed the city forever. Reading a book like Not just the levees Broke, a first hand account of surviving Katrina by Phyllis Montana-Leblanc or Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink gives a bit of insight as to just how bad things really were.

TremeIn spite of all the tragedies that New Orleans has endured, some things remain constant – good food and good music. New Orleans cookery take
s the best of all the many cultures the city is noted for, and mingles them together to produce flavors that can’t be found anywhere else. To bring a bit of Creole to your Canadian kitchen, check out Treme: Stories and Recipes from the heart of New Orleans.

Music has been a part of New Orleans since it was founded, but of all the music that the city has known, jazz could be called the city’s soundtrack. The DVD series Jazz by Ken Burns offers a taste of the sights and sounds spanning nearly 100 years in the birthplace of jazz.

Sookie Stackhouse, Dave Robicheaux and Lana Pulaski may not be actual people, but as book characters that live in or near New Orleans they embody the spirit of the city and bring it to life. If you prefer non-fiction to fiction, Sean Payton is an actual person whose biography on the return of pro football to New Orleans embodies the indomitable spirit of the city.

Let the good times roll!

-Lori

The Tyranny of Cool

I love Thomas Frank! Rarely has a writer/critic been able to embody so many insights, been able to express what I vaguely felt but could not articulate. Then again, that is why he gets paid to write and I am assigned to blog!

I Don't Believe in AtheistsThere are other critics of contemporary issues and culture who write with as powerful a voice. A prime example would be Chris Hedges, author of The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and other titles.  But I find Hedges’s voice can become too relentless. For me, Frank’s voice, while always critical and scathing, possesses a humour and humanity even with the darkest of subjects.

The Conquest of CoolThis is best represented in Frank’s first book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, on the power of marketing toward emotions, nostalgia, and longing for simpler times. It captures the spirit of the 1960s, and what we seem to be harking back to in our ever-so-self-aware 1990s, and onward (think TV’s “Mad Men”).

CheapWhat unites Frank and Hedges is a dislike for the easy and cheap answer, the dominance of appearance and image, rather than essence. They, and others, argue against the cheap, the easy, and the overly convenient, as in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. They say we are saturated by the idea of “cool”, where what is valuable is that which requires little effort, or expending of energy, or no great risk. Many feel the opposite is true, as demonstrated in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Outliers: The Story of Success and his “10,000 hours rule,” where the truly elite in any field require 10,000 hours of practice before they perfect their craft.

The Ego BoomThere are titles that argue in defence of cool, though, such as:

The Ego Boom: Why the World Really Does Revolve Around You by Steve Maich and Lianne George.

Everything Bad is Good for YouEverything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.

Hello, I'm SpecialHello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity by Hal Niedzviecki.

As for me, personally, I will stick with Frank and Hedges.

Phil D.

Political Animals

aristotle-262x232Man is by nature a political animal. Aristotle

Some pundits have posited that the debacle in the Senate has been manufactured to divert the public’s attention from controversies that seem to have vanished from centre stage such as Idle No More, the F35 brouhaha and robocalls during the last election. With parliament recessing for the summer, political junkies can find their fix in fictionalized portrayals of the underbelly of government. Here are a few thinly veiled treats to keep you going until the auditor’s report and RCMP investigations are released.

housebbc   The 1990 BBC political thriller House of Cards DVD series follows the Machiavellian scheming of the Conservative Chief Party Whip and his amoral ambitions to become Prime Minister of Great Britain. Drawn from Macbeth and Richard lll and starring the magnificent Ian Richardson, the series examines age old Shakespearian themes of power, ambition and corruption.

hous spacey   A recent American remake of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey is set in contemporary Washington and follows the path of a Democrat and Chief Party Whip who is passed over for appointment to Secretary of State and sets out  to exact his revenge.

bestlaidplans   Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, a former Ottawa insider, exposes the backroom shenanigans of federal politics. Fallis served under several cabinet ministers and his political satire won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The plot revolves around an attempt to run a desperate campaign using any candidate with a pulse.

The_Campaign_2012   In the same vein, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star in The Campaign which pokes fun at the nastiness of elections but in a non-partisan way – “may the best loser win.” While not a sophisticated film, it does skewer the vulgar depths to which campaign tactics stoop .

l_game-change-tv-2012-julianne-moore-woody-harrelson-8621 Julianne Moore is a dead ringer for Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in the political drama Game Change, a convincing account of the 2008 campaign trail of John McCain and running mate Palin. Moore provides a sympathetic albeit unflattering portrayal of Palin in this docudrama based on Game Change, a gripping account of the historic presidential election by John Heilemann.

1984  With the United States purportedly building a data bank to store every e-communication of its citizens for the next 100 years, it gives new meaning to the campaign slogan “ Yes we can” and revives the Orwellian warning “Big Brother is watching”. In the dystopian novel 1984, individuals are monitored through ubiquitous television screens overseen by a leader named Big Brother. Following reports of government electronic surveillance of everything from emails, Skype and Facebook posts to Google searches and bank transfers, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spiked making it Amazon’s 100th best selling book.

bringup  And if you thought the halls of Parliament are fraught with peril enter the court of Henry Vlll in Bring up the Bodies , sequel to Booker prize winning Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s novel re-creates a time when “ the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.” (from the publisher) When the stakes are as high as losing your head, these politicians’ antics look like child’s play.

Jane

The Presidential Presence: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’

Through a colleague/friend I was recently able to attend the advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the movie partly based on the book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Team of RivalsSo much has been written about the 16th President of the United States that at times it’s hard to find something that doesn’t seem derivative and clichéd. But Goodwin’s book speaks to the core of what made Lincoln great and in turn illustrates what constitutes true leadership: Recognize and recruit the best people possible; include and even seek out opposing ideas, agendas and points of view; display the courage to hear out and really engage with those opposing viewpoints, not only with rigor but with humility and humour.

True leadership has little time for ‘yes-men’ and ‘group-think.’ After all is said and done there is a moment when decisions and actions have to be taken and the consequences of those decisions and actions have to be accounted for. That is what attracts us to political leaders caught in tumultuous times.

Here are some other titles that highlight US Presidents in crisis:

The President's Club

Mark K. Updegrove, Baptism by Fire: eight presidents who took office in times of crisis

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club

Robert Caro’s magisterial The Years of Lyndon Johnson (especially vol. 4 Passage of Power)

Jim Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan

Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make

One Minute to MidnightMichael Dobbs, One Midnight to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the brink of nuclear war

Is our generation of leaders up to the challenge? It is well documented that Lincoln’s opponents and even members of his own cabinet dismissed his ‘country charm’ and underestimated his presence. It really does seem that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone…

Phil

The first social media President

The upcoming American presidential election is on November 6, and I find myself intrigued by the daily drama in the race to the Oval Office. Formidable matters on the table include the economy, unemployment, health care, foreign policy, marriage equality, energy, terrorism, abortion, education, the environment, gun control–the list is seemingly endless. While Barack Obama has attempted to address many of these issues through conventional political advertising, he has also made substantial use of social networking tools, racking up millions of Facebook followers as well as countless Twitter devotees.

Like Bill Clinton, President Obama has also made impressive use of the traditional popular media with numerous news and talk show appearances throughout the last four years and in particular during this election. Over the last couple of months, the public has had the opportunity to see the American president on television shows such as The View, David Letterman, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Tonight Show. Michelle Obama has also been in the forefront with guest appearances, to my amazement (or maybe horror) even skipping double dutch on Live with Kelly one morning. Quite obviously, these are opportunities for the Obamas to present themselves  as “everyday people” who can joke with the host while being able to connect to the viewing audience with simple messaging, and without the grilling on hard issues that might come from professional news reporters.

In the vortex of the political machine, no matter how, why, or where information is disseminated or whether the information conveyed is of substance or not, an individual doesn’t always get an in-depth view of a candidate or his performance. I find myself in this very place as I write, noting however that meat and potato analysis is available in several forms. Consider the numerous books that have been written about Obama; some earlier titles concentrated on his past, his rise to power, and his philosophical origins. More recently, as he enters the final stages of his term, various authors have written books supporting and/or criticizing Obama’s performance and policies, quite often with a partisan slant. If Mitt Romney is successful in his bid to unseat Obama as President next week, we should expect to see a wide variety of books about him soon–a natural consequence of holding the highest office in the United States.

Harriet

Here are some of the titles that have been published in 2012 alone:

Showdown by David Corn
Of interest to readers of the “political wonk” persuasion, this book examines the flurry of political warfare during the mid-term elections of 2010 and the subsequent events both internally and internationally that framed the debates ongoing in the current election season. A behind the scenes look at White House activities surrounding tax cut deals, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the narrowly averted government shutdown, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

The new New Deal by Michael Grunwald
In a riveting account based on new documents and interviews with more than 400 sources on both sides of the aisle, award-winning reporter Michael Grunwald reveals the vivid story behind President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill, one of the most important and least understood pieces of legislation in the history of the country.

The Obamas by Jodi Kantor
Drawing from voluminous interviews with over two hundred staffers, friends, aides, cabinet members, and the Obamas themselves, Kantor chronicles the public and private struggles of the First Family. Focusing more on the internal politics than a rote recital of policy changes and key events, her book examines how the couple navigated the Presidency, the White House, and Washington society. “A fascinating look at the intricate dynamics of an ordinary marriage, an unusual home, and an extraordinary presidency.”

Barack Obama : the story by David Maraniss
From a preeminent American journalist and historian comes the epic story of Barack Obama and the world that created him. “A deeply reported generational biography teeming with fresh insights and revealing information, a masterly narrative drawn from hundreds of interviews, including with President Obama in the Oval Office, and a trove of letters, journals, diaries, and other
documents.”

Leading from behind by Richard Miniter
The first book to explore President Obama’s abilities as a leader, by unearthing new details of his biggest successes and failures. Investigates the secret world of the West Wing and the combative personalities that shape historic events.

The Obama hate machine by Bill Press
Presidents have always been attacked like this, right? Wrong, according to Press. The author claims that while presidents and presidential candidates have routinely been subjected to personal attacks, the outright disdain Obama’s extremist opponents have for the facts has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary American politics.

Confront and conceal by David E. Sanger
A comprehensive assessment of Obama’s foreign-policy challenges and achievements.

The escape artists : how Obama’s team fumbled the recovery by Noam Scheiber
A gripping look inside the meeting rooms, the in-boxes, and the super-sharp minds of the pedigreed propeller heads who attempted to guide President Obama out of a global economic crisis. Profiles the squad of elite administration insiders who have set and managed the president’s economic policies from before the start of his term in office, through the crisis, and into the current prolonged recovery.

The oath : the Obama White House and the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
A gripping insider’s account of the momentous ideological war between the John Roberts Supreme Court and the Obama administration. From the moment John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, blundered through the Oath of Office at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the relationship between the Supreme Court and the White House has been confrontational. Both men are young, brilliant, charismatic, charming, determined to change the course of the nation–and completely at odds on almost every major constitutional issue.

What We Owe Others & What We Owe Each Other

There has been much discussion recently about debt, both personal and national, and its impact on our lives now and in the future. Although this issue to staggeringly complex it essentially boils down to what constitutes the rights of individuals versus the obligations and responsibilities of individuals. For example, if I desire the right and privilege of owning a home, I also take on the corresponding responsibility: making mortgage payments.

Both the theoretical and real-life debates get more interesting when we begin to assign responsibility and blame; to assess failures as fully, partially, or completely someone’s fault (or not). How we view this question often determines how we develop the answer. It is the age-old debate of those who believe all individuals are rational calculating machines driven by self-interest, versus the view that as social animals there is an interplay between the expectations and demands of society and the choices we make as individuals.

The rationalist view is that self-interest is hard-wired into human nature, though  some research indicates that cooperation and altruism may have played a more important role in human evolution than originally thought.

Martin Novak’s Supercooperators makes the case that cooperation was and is a fundamental building block in our species’ development.

Similarly, Mark Pagel’s book Wired for Culture posits that what makes humans unique is the cumulative effect of being able to both manipulate objects and to basically ‘steal’ ideas by observing, copying, and improving upon the ideas of others. Human beings build levels of complexity by sharing (or at the very least observing) the actions of others, as is also demonstrated in the field of social networks and technology.

As explained by Yochai Benkler  in The Penguin and the Leviathan, a healthy sustainable model of interaction is found in the open networks of Wikipedia and other online resource sharing communities.

A separate part of the debt debate is the question of whether all segments of society are bearing an equal burden in shouldering the crisis. Joseph Stiglitz’s Price of Inequality, John Lanchester’s IOU, and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence  argue that the increasing separation of the haves from the have nots and the deterioration of the middle class are resulting in an unequal social debt burden.  Another interesting component is that the social burden of debt can include the owing of favours and similar obligations, which can be perceived to be as important as financial debts. Margaret Atwood’s Payback and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 years provide fascinating overviews of this dimension.

Although there are no definite conclusions to be found for this multi-level issue, there is a diverse range of perspectives attempting to make sense of it all.

Phil

A Dirge for Gore Vidal

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

—Gore Vidal

Last week marked the death of american author and satirist Gore Vidal. Since I have a preference for nonfiction I was exposed to Vidal through his essays, commentaries and interviews, and in my opinion he was one of the greater American novelists and satirists to emerge in the post-World War II era. Often remembered more for his harsh wit and mean-spirited one-liners than his literary works, the essence of Vidal was the dual role he played as painfully self-conscious critic and outsider while at the same time being the consummate insider.

The aspect that strikes me most about Vidal’s work and critique was how he attempted to always provide a reality check against the mythological beliefs that contemporary American culture attributed to United States’ founding fathers. Vidal’s ideal was republicanism – that is, a community rule and governed by the people – and his greatest lament was a country that abdicated their responsibility to govern themselves and allowed the country to drift into imperial ambitions, demagogues, and economic elites.

The entire American Chronicle series is a testament to that critique and vision of what the ideal of America could be compared to what it has become: Lincoln, Washington, D.C., and Empire were pleas of what Vidal thought America stood for and should strive to be. In a certain sense, through his hard-headed realism, Vidal was an idealist of a very high order.

The other side of Vidal was the very post-modern one that we can easily recognize today: that of the social critic whose primary goal is to shock and scandalize. His references and essays to homosexuality in works like “The City and the Pillar” and Sexually Speaking sound more quaint than scandelous to our 21st-century ears.

Although Vidal is neither the first writer to raise the question of America losing its way nor the only one to poke the eye of a complacent society demanding conformity and respectability at cost to individual expression, he took his issues seriously and was, as remembered in The Economist earlier this week, a man of “a dying breed.” As USA Today stated on August 2, 2012; “The world without Gore Vidal is ‘a duller place'”. Indeed!

-Phil D.

Green Gloves and Red Squares

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, was a recent guest on The Colbert Report.  When Stephen Colbert commented that fashion was a trivial pursuit,  she countered that “fashion reflects culture; it reflects our times. A great fashion photograph can tell you just as much about what is going on in our world as any headline or TV report.”

Take Michelle Obama for example. A recent book entitled Michelle Style studies the choices of Mrs. O, “the first lady of fashion.”  Because she mixes off-the-rack clothes from Gap and J. Crew with American designer frocks, Obama sends the message that she is accessible, someone that Americans of every economic status can relate to. Following the inauguration she donned a pair of olive green leather gloves from mid-priced brand J. Crew and their stock immediately jumped 10.6 percent, an indication of the power of her influence. 

Michelle Obama in J. Crew

Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style analyzes her image as it has evolved from what was initially dubbed  “angry Black woman”  to the current one of  “Power Wife” and “Mom in Chief.” Clearly how one dresses communicates one’s associations and values.

Tomboy styleClothes have played a significant role in my life and helped shape my political views. I recall the day in 1967 when I was sent home from high school for wearing blue jeans in violation of the dress code of skirts only for girls. My feminism “clicked” on that day.  Alison Lurie noted in The Language of Clothes that “women in trousers are viewed as wanting to wear The Pants, which in our culture, for centuries is the symbolic badge of male authority.” That rebelliousness is celebrated in Tomboy Style,  which champions those women who “blur the line between masculinity and feminity” and defy gender stereotyping.

Scott Schuman began photographing street style and posting images on The Sartorialist blog, with the idea of creating a dialogue about the world of fashion and its relationship to daily life. He looks beyond runway models and haute couture to the individual on the street who expresses his or her own point of view apart from the idealized images and dictates of fashion magazines. 

Similarly, the DVD Bill Cunningham New York documents the photographer who has immortalized real people and their personal style on the streets of New York for decades.

Speaking of the street, Quebec protestors are wearing their politics on their sleeves by safety-pinning on red felt squares as a symbol of solidarity. The “red square” appeared at Cannes Film Festival on the tuxedo of Quebec director Xavier Dolan. Montreal-based band Arcade Fire wore red squares when they performed on Saturday Night Live with “street fighting man” Mick Jagger who sported a red shirt.

Far from being a trivial topic, fashion raises many different and important questions. So say the editors of Fashion : Thinking with Style, which explores how changing sex roles, political upheavals, class structure and globalization have all influenced fashion.

Thoughts to ponder as we pull our summer clothes out of storage.

Jane

Trust and the Public Good

How healthy is our democracy? That’s a loaded and provocative question. For some commentators it is the most pressing question of our time.

In Chris Hedges’ collection of essays The World As It Is, he cites Sheldon S. Wolin’s concept of “inverted totalitarianism“, detailed in Wolin’s latest book Democracy Incorporated. Wolin claims that modern democracies are not threatened by direct forms of dictatorship like a one-party state or a demagogic leader, but by more subtle forms: indifference, apathy, and ignoring social problems in favour of individual pursuits and pre-occupations.

This analysis can be traced back to Neil Postman’s 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death (a 20th anniversary edition was published in 2006) which saw the pursuit of being entertained becoming an end in itself. The idea of challenging oneself and questioning the world around us is considered boring and the ultimate waste of time. 

Writers like Cass Sunstein (author of Republic.com)and Robert D. Putnam trace how traditional organizations like social service clubs and various associations once built social networks between people who would not normally have much in common. These informal social networks helped create the bonds which formed the sinews of democracy. For some, social media and the voluntary relationships found online have effectively replaced these traditional building blocks of democracy. For me, personally, I’m not so sure.

The unifying theme of these various points of view is that if democracy is to flourish in our age and into the future, there must be ways for diverse people with little in common to establish trust between us. But trust appears to be the rarest of commodities today: we don’t trust the expert,  we don’t trust the elitist intellectual, we don’t trust the company executive, we don’t trust the self-serving union bosses… if everyone has an agenda, where do we find the common ground or the public good?

How to build that trust in our democracy and in our personal relationships is one of the most pressing problems we face. I certainly can’t get my head around this issue in a single blog post, but here are some titles that may help us get started:

 Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier

Smart Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey

Trust: Self interest and the common good by Marek Kohn

Greater Good: How good marketing makes for better democracy by John A. Quelch

The Spirit of Democracy by Larry Jay Diamond.

Phil