Arthur Percy Sherwood doesn’t initially seem the type to go head-to-head with an Orwellian government. Clean-cut, sporting rectangular glasses and a shawl-collar cardigan, he is soft-spoken, unfailingly polite and well-liked in his social circles.
However, Percy, at 24 years old, has organized two national government conferences convening representatives from the public and private sectors to discuss climate change. In 2015, he was the communications officer for Western Canada’s regional economic development agency.
While most students sat around in sweatpants binging Stranger Things, Percy gave conference presentations based on his work, reviewed and edited climate change reports for the Canadian government and generally did high-powered, successful adult things. Most recently, he’s written an entirely original political analysis for The Western Journal of Legal Studies.
His articulacy is a point of awe with his friends. Percy drops words like “reify” and “incommensurable” without a hint of affectation. The cadences of his speech — measured pauses, clarity of expression, hallmarks of a scrupulous and methodical mind — are those of a politician's.
That might be because he’s lived and breathed politics since day one. He was born in Ottawa, the seat of Canadian government, to a diplomat: his father was the ambassador of Canada to Iraq and Jordan, who decided to start a family in the nation’s capital after a lifetime of international postings.
“He would read about politics, read the newspaper every single day, and he still does,” says Percy. “As a kid, I’d always be watching the news with him. It was always a point of discussion between us, the current news going on.”
Percy got his undergrad in political science at the University of Ottawa, then came to Western University for a master's in political science. Now, he's doing yet another master's here: journalism and communications.
“Really, it’s pretty absurd to be in a journalism program,” he says. “You’re not going to get a job. You’re not going to be making too much money.”
And yet here he is. Percy says what entices him is political journalism — Parliament Hill, for example, or even the White House. More than anything he hopes, through his work, to hold public officials accountable. His latest article, due to be published in January in the Western Journal of Legal Studies, argues that the American state of emergency that started with 9/11 has never really ended and that ultimately, the U.S. government continues to use it today as justification for controlling and monitoring its citizens.
Percy is fascinated, and troubled, by issues of government surveillance and control, issues like biometric technology, breaches of privacy and airport security, and how they’re routinely justified by narratives like “the war on terror.”
Given the unlikelihood of a terrorist attack, he explains, government response in the United States has been hugely disproportionate, and this outsize response, in combination with the profits for the military-industrial complex, point to a highly unethical series of government policies involving mass surveillance.
“Part of the reason why I wanted to go into journalism was to write more about this,” he says.
Percy studies political moves and governmental rhetoric like Sherlock Holmes might examine a crime scene. He examines them rationally and comprehensively, and when he finds inconsistencies or flaws, he works out who stands to gain, who’s manipulating policy for power or money.
One story of his father’s has stayed with him all his life. Percy's father was in the back of a bulletproof Range Rover in the midst of Baghdad, one of his many postings, when gunfire started peppering the side of the vehicle. Later, it was revealed that there was a plot to intercept the car, take him hostage and kill him. But Percy’s dad, in his bulletproof car, was utterly unfazed — he noted what a disorganized assassination it was and brushed it off.
For Percy, this story was always a succinct illustration that life, fundamentally, is ridiculous. But absurdism, he explains, also gives him a valuable insight into politics.
“[Absurdism] allows you to look at policies like terrorism,” he says. “And you think, well, why are my rights being jeopardized? Why is the government looking at everything I do? And you say, it's not for terrorism, it's for control of the population. You have to ask: who's benefiting, who's taking advantage of this?”
But even if life is meaningless nonsense, Percy is still determined to enact change at a structural level. Because after all, he says, what are the alternatives?
“What, just let the world continue its course, let it go to shit?” he says. “You can still find some personal meaning. And some purpose to get up — just without being completely fooled by the world."
“At the end of the day,” he adds, “you're trying to help people.”