Building Character

Dear UTA,

Recently, I sat in a comfortably soft chair in the large, open sanctuary of the Japanese Gospel Church of Toronto my grandparents’ church. They’d been attending this church for decades, ever since they’d come to Canada. I was there because it was the last service they would attend before leaving the city and there was going to be a commemoration of their service. They were also going to be congratulated on sixty years of marriage. Before this speech was given, two young men shared their experiences of a humanitarian and evangelical mission from which they had recently returned. Recounting how they’d come back “changed men” with a passion to “act for Jesus,” I thought, perhaps surprisingly, of the radical movement of which I’m part. And now, re-reading your recent editorial “The Right Desires: Their Base and Ours,” I am reminded of my experiences in church.

In the editorial, you ask: “How did the Right – whose policies are at odds with the material interests of working class and racialized people – manage to build a popular base amongst those it holds in contempt?” I found your answers to be compelling: the Right’s access to and control of resources, their understanding of the power of presenting “feelings first and facts second,” and the fact that they correctly identify “the contradictions and inadequacies of liberal democracy” even as they propose “resolutions” that harm working class and oppressed people, are all no doubt important.

However, I caution radicals who use our lack of resources to excuse our own failures. When the offering plate was circulated at the service I attended, almost every person in the church placed some amount of money there – money the organization depends on to fulfill its purpose and maintain its infrastructure.
The Left should expect tangible commitments from members of our movements to help address the resource imbalance between us and our opponents. In 2010, the Conservative Party of Canada received $17,416,855 in donations from 95,010 individuals. The donations average $183 per person, or $15 per month per person. If we are serious about tipping the balance of power we have to develop strategies to build our own resources and infrastructure.

Of course, our opponents have most of the money, but we have most of the people – at least in theory; however, as you correctly identify, the right is out there stealing our base. Last fall, working class and racialized Torontonians elected Rob Ford as mayor in a landslide. The results stunned Torontonians on the Left who could not believe that so many who would be hurt by the Right-wing policies voted for Ford. Ford has also generated controversy for anti-poor, racist, and homophobic statements, and for his arrest for assaulting his wife. How could Torontonians vote for that? You propose that Torontonians voted for Ford because David Miller’s “creative city” excluded most of those who lived or worked in it, and that Ford offered a folksy “respect.” I would like to suggest another interpretation.

In Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, Right-wing professor and leader of the “Calgary School” Tom Flanagan shares some insight into Conservative thinking about leadership: “People don’t vote just for ideas; they vote for potential governors whose character they can trust and who evoke emotions of loyalty and support.” It‘s hard to think that people might feel this way about Ford, but, based on comments by Ford voters I found online, it’s clear that some of them did: “With Ford, it is probably gut feel. There is a candid quality about him”; “Rob Ford is a down-to-earth guy”; “[Ford is] an ethical individual but not perfect … approachable … likeable and trustworthy.” They didn’t necessarily share commitments to smaller government or reject Miller’s “creative city,” but they perceived Ford’s character positively. Remembering how Jack Layton was portrayed after his death (by ardent NDPers and conservatives alike) as “inspiring,” “courageous,” and “trustworthy,” it’s clear that character plays an important role in politics and leadership.

Qualities that form an individual’s character can also apply to groups of individuals. Ignoring the role that character plays in movement-building means ignoring lessons from our past. The civil rights and black power struggle, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the California grape boycott all possessed a definable character. Words like honor, sacrifice, patience, principled, compassionate, and hope are words that come to mind. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many leaders in those movements came from religious traditions that foster those attributes.

Do we possess the character to inspire others to join us if we fail to convince them with our emotional or logical arguments? Or is the character of our movement less than inspiring? The radical Left should consider how we might incorporate such observations into our strategic discussions.

You also ask “...why would anyone go through a painful therapeutic process if they didn’t believe that things would be better at the end of it?” You point to the Tea Party and the Front Nationale as right-wing movements that offer a “more reliable path to individual self-realization and community than anything the left can currently offer.” However, I think you place too much emphasis on their use of the “language of total social transformation.” Equally as important is their ability to propose tangible goals that can actually be won in the short term. For all their radical language, the Tea Party proposed clear goals like stopping the health care reform act. The Front Nationale proposes changes to immigration laws that can actually be achieved with enough influence or power. Beyond what your editorial has outlined, the Left’s weakness owes to its lack of clearly defined goals for “non-reformist reforms.” We must offer campaigns that we actually stand a chance of winning, and which are in line with long-term revolutionary goals. Despite the inspiring events of the Arab Spring, our ‘heaven’ is a long way off, and we cannot expect people to sign up just because we’ve got a compelling emotional, moral, or logical argument.

There may be nothing “logical” about working your entire life to reap rewards that will only come after death, yet many evangelical Christian congregations are growing. People like my grandparents stay within the church for years, and devote their energies to it not only because they believe in heaven, emotionally or ideologically. The church offers them something tangible – a social space that provides continuity, stability, leadership, support, and guidance. It may seem absurd to ask our movement to become like a church, and that is not what I propose; however, religious communities have much to teach us about building and sustaining a movement.

In solidarity,
Yutaka Dirks