Mel Swart

There were a wealth of newspaper tributes to Mel Swart this week–one of the founders of Canada’s New Democratic Party, dead at 87. I won’t echo the tales that everyone has heard.

But I have a few personal memories that stick with me. Mel’s example of a life-lived together with his various words of wisdom have always been a big part of my own definition of democratic politics at its best. And that’s important to reflect on in times when we most often see democratic politics at its worst.

I’d met Mel first in the 1980’s but I only really got to know him when I was working on Peter Kormos’ 1996 campaign for the leadership of the Ontario New Democrats. This was an enterprise that most of us on the campaign team knew had a slim to no chance of ultimate success. Despite this realistic assessment, our view was that this initiative had to be undertaken in order to get some items of principle onto the convention floor for discussion. And in that latter task, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams– as issues which had been shut out of the leadership debate came to be its central focus.

During the campaign, I ran into people who said things to me like, “You’re insane.” “You people can’t hope to win.” “What are you doing?”

What these people didn’t understand or had forgotten was the many successes of the NDP in opposition. You don’t have to win to have a voice and, ultimately, the success of the ideas outlives the success of individuals.

Mel was the fundraising chair for that campaign. I was the media chair. I remember calling Mel on the phone the first time and cracking up at the phone message. First there was about 10 seconds of nothing but wind sound and then a crackling voice like an old Edison cylinder that began with … “This is Mel Swart talking to you on a (pause and carefully enunciated) telephone answering machine… ” crackle pop.. I asked people, “How long has Mel had that answering machine, anyway?” It turned out–to my surprise–that it was brand new.

Throughout the time that Mel had been an MPP in Ontario he’d never had an answering machine at home, was always listed in the phone book and answered his own phone. Only when he “retired” did he feel that it was permissable for him to put the public at a little distance by purchasing an answering machine. It was his unfamiliarity with the device that caused him to be awkward in recording his message.

In this regard and many others, Mel really believed himself to be a “public servant” and lived that way. It just didn’t seem right to him that he should not be as available as possible to the people that elected him to help them in any way he could and he was famous for pinching every penny of the legislative budget he was given. He never took an apartment in Toronto. Instead he drove two or more hours back and forth to his home riding of Welland everyday, sometimes making it in time to attend mid-week events and meetings. Of course there are also a lot of stories of him crashing on his office couch and being seen tiptoeing to the Member’s loo in the wee hours.

Perhaps the thing that sticks with me most was an anecdote that Mel related that seemed humorous at the time but took on broader meaning as I have reflected on it over the years. A group of us were shooting the breeze about campaigning in general when Mel said,

“Well people want to talk more than they want to listen. So when you’ve got nothing they think want to hear I think it pays to listen. I worked a few times on some just hopeless campaigns and I’d walk up and say just one thing, ‘what are you thinking about the election.'”

“And then I’d shut up and let them talk.”

” They’d spout off for a few minutes and no matter what they said, I’d just smile and say, ‘You sound like a New Democrat to me!'”

” I’d leave them scratching their heads wondering what they had said that fit with our political program and my hope was that it got them thinking and listening more to what we were about. I don’t know whether it did or whether it didn’t, but it sure was better than arguing and leaving them angry and closed-minded.”

It’s a funny story and a clever strategy but it’s more than that.

Mel was telling us that politics IS more about listening to the people than trying to ram any “key messages” down their throats. And politics at its best is about developing some positive ideas–a political program–and engaging people in thinking about those positive ideas and reflecting on them. Would this set of policies would improve things for their family and community? His advice was to engage people in supporting your positive ideas and you don’t have to waste your energy in in negative attacks on the policies of other parties.

Mel was passionate about ideas but always able to separate a difference of opinion from respect for individuals. He could hate an opponent’s viewpoint on one issue while liking the individual and respecting him/her on other achievements or opinions. This statesman-like stance is so at odds with the unfortunate divisive politics that have become the norm. Communities are helped when politicians across the political spectrum can work together on issues in common.

It’s unfortunate that in recent years the NDP has been better at throwing people out than attracting new people to share in a positive vision. Most recently the furor surrounding an initiative to attract spiritual progressives comes to mind. Mel was all about listening, about bringing more people into a big tent of progressives that shared key values. It was that positive, inclusive, spirit that made me want to work for the NDP as a campaign worker, volunteer and staff member. I hope as we individually and collectively reflect on Mel’s legacy it helps us all to find that spirit again.

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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Spirituality and Politics of the Left

I was a bit boggled by some comments in a recent article in The Toronto Star Faith in the Left . The Star reported that some New Democrats such as Tarek Fatah were suggesting that they might leave the party over recent initiatives to reconcile the party with those of us in the religious Left.

One is left wondering if Fatah, or others disturbed by recent initiatives in the NDP to reach out to the Religious Left have ever read the famous “New Jerusalem” speech of Tommy Douglas or understand the deep underpinnings of faith that were at the roots of democratic socialism in Canada? Does the term “Social Gospel” ring any bells of memory in the Party these days?

Beyond this particular issue, I was saddened by the all-too-typical narrowness of vision. For a party that espouses inclusivity, equality, and tolerance, the NDP can be remarkably intolerant a lot of the time. It seems to this New Democrat that if we keep throwing people out because they are “Too Left” like the Waffle or more recently, Barry Wiesleder& friends, or because they advocated strategic voting like Buzz Hargrove, . . . or whatever sin of the month. . . and God (if you’ll excuse the expression) help us if you seem like could win an election because that probably means that you smell like a Liberal. . .so you should certainly be thrown out. AND in addition to this habit of throwing people out, other New Democrats keep storming out of the party voluntarily because they don’t agree with all policy directions, we’ll be left with a mighty small party.

Save on conventions, hold them in a phone booth.

Maybe that’s alright. Maybe the Left needs a new beginning.

What is it with the current state of Left Wing politics in Canada that we can’t establish one big tent that we can all feel comfortable under?

I’m reminded of the advertisement from the United Church of Christ that showed people being ejected from traditional churches. Are there those in the NDP that would similarly like to exclude people on the basis of religious faith? Is there a finger on the ejector button? Or are we only to be allowed in as second-class citizens and asked to park our religion at the door? That would be too bad, because leaders like Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King arose BECAUSE of their faith and not despite it.

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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Rabbi Michael Lerner speaks in Toronto

Last night, April 4, at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto, Rabbi Michael Lerner–author of The Left Hand of God: taking back our country from the religious Right—tackled a question a lot of us on the political Left ask from time to time. Why do working class people so often vote against their own self-interest? But being American, Lerner no longer speaks of the working class and so he asked the question about an ill-defined “middle class”.

It was an opening that set the tone for the evening. The questions that Lerner tackled in his well-reasoned lecture were of global perspective, but his particular focus and experience were clearly American.

At the root of political dissatisfaction, he argued, is a spiritual crisis that affect our whole western society. One of the symptons is that people feel their friendships and relationships are becoming “thinner” and more selfish. People are taught to “network” instead of forming real friendships– to only give what they can expect to get back. The broad acceptance that this is the way the world works leads to individual cynicism about the quality of friendship and to great loneliness. Lerner’s research shows that people yearn to be valued and loved for themselves and their deeper qualities.

Meanwhile romantic relationships exist in what Lerner refers to as the “dating Supermarket” in which individuals taste new partners for what adventures in experience they might bring. Marriage commitments are based, he says, on a judgment call about who will meet the most needs out of the pool of all possibly obtainable partners. Both partners realize they could be beat out by future competition. This leads to huge insecurity and the older, poorer, and less attractive the individual the higher the insecurity factor.

In the work world, employees feel that they are disposable cogs in the wheel. While people long for more meaningful work, the unions tend to only see and hear the demand for higher wages. When working people cannot find an intrinsic sense of value in their work, they can only push for higher wages to try to buy some time in the future to explore more meaningful things in life.

The Religious Right, Lerner argues, has sensed this spiritual hunger and spoken directly to those that feel de-valued in our society. Lerner finds a surprising similarity in their message to that of the Women’s Movement of the 60’s. The Women’s Movement in speaking to women’s anger about being de-valued told women, “you’re not the problem. It is Society that is lacking the proper values and attitudes.” In like fashion, the Religious Right is saying to the over-worked and under-valued working class, “you’re not the problem. You’re not a failure. It is society that has the wrong values.” And while the Left would agree that working people are not the problem and society has the wrong values, the Religious Right goes on to blame this lack of human values on various scapegoats–an “other” that they can de-mean. In the USA, the “demeaned other” has included: blacks, gays, feminists and, with growing support and confidence has now expanded to “all liberals.” All that it takes is to pin the “selfish” label on the demeaned group, to make them appear to be a part of the “me-first” spiritual crisis that has led so many individuals to feel rootless and invisible. At the same time the Right is supporting supremely selfish actions domestically and internationally.

How do they keep getting away with this clear contradiction?

In large part, Lerner argues, because the Left does not see the pain of the spiritual crisis. And the Right steps into that void. Here, Lerner’s arguments resonated with the view articulated in the 2004 bestselling book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank . But in addition to not reaching out to the spiritual crisis in America, Lerner, states that the Left compounds their error by turning off people of faith. Any spiritual talk turns a lot of Left-wingers off. They hear it as some sort of New Age mush without intellectual rigor, or they mistake it for a form of Right Wing fundamentalism. And on top of the Left’s misunderstanding of individuals with a spiritual mindset, Lerner notes that the Left has a tendency to be religiophobic to the point of conveying to religious people that they can only be accepted into Left-wing political organization if they “park their spirituality at the door.” And it would appear that he hit a nerve of common experience in the Toronto audience as there was an exclamation of recognition and an outburst of “yes(!!)” as he made this observation.

Lerner is involved in organizing a political movementsThe Network of Spiritual Progressives and was partly in town hoping to recruit more members into this fold. He saw the goal of his organization as focused on two issues: 1) Calling and exposing the misuse of God by the religious Right to justify their war-mongering and selfish agenda, and 2) Challenging the religiophobic views of the traditional Left.

On the last point, Lerner suggested that even self-interest ought to lead the Left to moderate its critical and belittling attitude towards individuals with religious beliefs as he noted that the majority of Americans are believers. But, in turning once again to the model of the Women’s Movement, he suggested that it is not going to be enough for religious people to be merely “tolerated” in Left political organizations. Just as women educated those political movements that they brought skills and a perspective that was unique and valuable to the Left, so religious individuals bring a valuable perspective. Lerner remarked that the Left was never stronger in the US than when it had great religious leaders like Martin Luther King, jr. as key spokespeople. I wanted to yell out, “Tommy Douglas in Canada!” And I wish I had because in the midst of a great, thought-provoking speech I kept wishing for more of an informed nod to the Canadian experience and–as a member of the traditional religious Left—more of an informed look at the experience of existing religious Left organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement, Christian Peacekeepers, the Society of Friends (Quakers), or as one young women in the audience requested, a look at the Unitarian experience. The response to this question, that involved some very specific US experience with the leadership of some Protestant religions seemed hugely off-base to much of the puzzled Canadian audience. Not only did Lerner not address the question about what the Unitarians could do differently to communicate their political message better, he seemed unaware of their strong political stand in Canada—and the fact that Unitarians are neither Protestant or Christian in any narrow sense.

In all a useful and thought-provoking lecture and I left with the book in hand. However, on the basis of this lecture, I feel that if Lerner’s movement is to travel outside of the USA, there is going to have to be more informed understanding of the history, political challenges and strengths of the international community. But perhaps even more, Lerner and his movement, need to understand, include and ally themselves with those of us in the religious Left who are part of existing movements with long traditions—some stretching back to post-Reformation traditions. But certainly his main message was in harmony with a lot of us in attendance, a lot of pamphlets giving information on joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives were picked up at the event. Perhaps Toronto will give its own multi-cultural, multi-faith perspective to what is–at core–a great idea whose time is past-due.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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In the Company of Women

This past week I actually managed to get myself to a LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) Toronto meeting after months of schedule conflicts that have prevented me from getting there and helping push along the work of this organization that has been key to so many important court decisions and educational initiatives impacting on the rights of Canadian women.

It was phenomenal to be once again in the company of a group of social-activist, intelligent and yes despite the popular misconception that feminists have no sense of humour. . . funny women.

Ideas flew fast and furious. (And NO, right-wing, anti-equity readers I’m not going to tell you what those ideas were, so you can leave now.)

I probably was perceived as a bit of a babble-head but it had just been SO LONG since I’d been in the midst of like-minded women. (Apologies for babbling to all you LEAFERS reading this.)

Our chairperson had a small baby so I’m sure that babykins thought that this group of women surrounded him with the sole purpose of a baby-admiration society. He was more interested in peek-a-boo and party than nursing, that’s for sure! It was a multi-tasking women’s ballet of baby play, supper assembly, serious social action and occasional cat-herding (real cats) as family cats stalked the buffet table lasagne.

Ah, it was an organizing meeting such as only feminists cook up. It was productive, it was fun and I felt like.. . . “I’m HOME!!”

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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