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What Would Leaders of the Past Say About Politicians Today?

11/20/2013 05:31 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

What is to become of the Canadian political estate? Seriously, how to we move on from the various scandals and incompetencies at the various levels of government? Canadians continue to console themselves in all this confusion by holding to the belief that the next election can turn things around. Maybe, but our successive failures are beginning to build a troubling narrative.

This week was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. And in a couple of weeks many will commemorate the passing of Vaclav Havel, playwright and politician, who left a lengthy legacy concerning the nobility of politics and the need for citizens to take charge of their own fate. Both were uncomfortable presidents in significant times of transition and could have been forgiven for permitting political survival to eclipse all other aspects of public service.

But they didn't. Instead, what they called for were nations built on the noble development of citizens and the requirement of political leaders who clearly stood on the side of principle and a philosophy of public duty. Lincoln was assassinated two years after his famous speech; Havel passed away just two years ago of respiratory failure. They continue to stand tall in comparison to much of what we have seen of late.

Havel lived in a time of systemic corruption and elite failure, yet he spoke of a people's need to dream of "living in truth." His own life told a story of one person's desire to find meaning in political structure and the willingness of citizens to hold their representatives accountable. Strange as it sounds, it formed a unique message of hope in an age of pessimism and decline. Far from resounding only within the borders of his native Czechoslovakia, his message found international appeal among all those people yearning for a better politics, a more hopeful kind of democracy.

His travels revealed his influence. He was honoured not only in Prague, but Washington, Strasbourg, Jerusalem, and feted at the United Nations in New York. He was called upon the address the Academy of Humanities and Political Sciences in Paris, the National Press Club in Canberra, and a conference of intellectuals in Tokyo. He used Athens as a backdrop for one of his famous speeches on democracy, and the graduating class at Harvard for his thoughts on the responsibilities of intelligent citizenship. He accepted honours in Oslo, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Barcelona, and Philadelphia.

Make no mistake about it; such a profile was achieved not merely because he was a gifted playwright or a politician, but instead a voice willing to bring a sense of nobility, respect, and humanity back to political life in an era when pessimism riddled the international political world.

In essence, he was a man bewildered that people would take democracy and turn it into such a shambles of public humiliation. He instinctively comprehended where such a path would lead -- totalitarianism, corruption, even tyranny -- and he desired that people be filled once again with the awe that comes from recognizing the ability of a people to actually govern themselves. He viewed politics as the "art of the impossible" and continued to maintain that it could be a force for good, for transcending our tribal and materialistic infatuations. He warned of the pitfalls of elected office, the dilemmas of power, the dangers of unaccountable governments, and the need to recognize individual responsibility as a means of enhancing, and protecting, our collective destiny.

What would Lincoln or Havel think of Rob Ford, or the growing list of other politicians fallen into an unethical swamp? Two leaders who fought against the tyranny of slavery or of communism would surely shake their heads at our sliding scale of accountability. And they would marvel that citizens, who continue to hold the reigns of power of collective destiny in their hands, would watch all this political insanity in a kind of fascinated, angry, and detached apathy. We must demand better from our representatives before the possibilities of a quiet political revolution be overtaken by mass anger and crippling indifference. And our best way of doing that is to demand more of ourselves as citizens.

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