Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Opposing the "right" starts early

At twenty-six, I got a quick and unpleasant wake-up call from the right wing in my town. I engaged with a couple of grade eleven male students, after class, in discussion about the provincial election results from the previous night in which the conservatiives won another majority government, including the local conservative candidate. As incumbent, he had served as a member of the board of the Ontario Northland Railway, and in my innocence, I did not perceive how that could be considered parallel to, if not equal to, a cabinet post. I thought he was "getting two pay cheques" and  I had worked for the Liberal candidate thereby opposing the return of the incumbent.
When I was asked for my reaction to the vote, by one of the young men, I replied, "I think that the conservative candidate is a shyster for taking what amounts to two pay-cheques, one as an MLA, the other as a Board Member of the ONR."
The next day a registered letter arrived at the school addressed to me.
In it, the father of the inquisitive young man, the President of the (then) Progressive Conservative Party Riding Association, demanded an apology from me, or failing that, he would begin court action against me, for having made inappropriate remarks as a public school teacher.
Clearly one of the young men had had a family conversation about our conversation, prompting the letter, which he claimed he tried to block.
I paid a formal visit to the principal, informing him of the letter, and told him I was going to the office of the letter writer to apologize. I certainly did not want, and would do much to avoid, a law suit over informal remarks, outside of class, conveyed by an innocent to a "primed" political father, also the town's top criminal defence lawyer. I paid a recalcitrant visit, apologized and put the incident in the back pocket of my memory.
That was in 1967.
Forty-five years later, I can still feel the sweat of anxiety on my palms as I write this. My stomach is tight, and I still feel resentful and angry about the letter.
My anger is not directed to the young man, who apparently showed more maturity than the lawyer-father, in trying to head off the letter. My anger, resentment and bitterness is directed exclusively to the letter-writer, and indirectly, to all the conservatives whose paths my life has crossed, and with whom I have almost never agreed, to my own peril.
Within a year of that incident, I was invited to speak on a panel as part of the local ministry group's Lenten Study program, to address the question, "Is the Christian faith still relevant?" My father was then on the Session of the Presbyterian church whose clergy insisted he be the "spiritual teacher" to follow the panel. I had left the church, except for the formality of my wedding, when I was sixteen when the same clergy had preached words like these:
If you are a Roman Catholic, you are going to hell;
If you drink alcohol, you are going to hell;
If you go to dances, movies, you are going to hell;
If you use make-up, you are going to hell.
In my portion of the panel presentation, I basically said the Christian faith was relevant, but the methods used to practice it, including unilateral sermons filled with exclusive judgements, and threats of "hell" were better replaced with seminars, readings, discussions and a more informal searching and discovery of the meanings of the words of scripture. Of course, the clergy was furious, and played a significant role in convincing people in power that I should be moved on to another town.
I was effectively declared "persona non grata" in my home town, having secured the wrath of both the clergy and the riding president of the conservative party.
Moving to a new town, I tried to begin anew, with the help of people like the principal who hired me, for whose support I will forever be grateful.
In a few years, I was invited to play a role in local television as a reporter/interview covering city council. In the course of a decade and a half, I was honoured to participate with political neophytes, apprentices, journeymen and women, and a few political pro's. They came from all political camps, right, left, centre and some who swayed from side to side, depending on the mood of the electorate.
A path down the middle, as objective as I could be, promised and delivered many opportunities to explain the nuts-and-bolts of several municipal issues from arena construction, to water and sewer replacement, to lane closings and zoning applications, and even the inevitable conflict between the forces seeking to secure permission for a peripheral mall and those seeking approval, both political and legal, for a downtown retail development anchored by one of the major department stores. I favoured the downtown development, took to the airwaves to argue that case, and after a few months, was invited to 'take a walk' around the building housing the radio station for which I was then writing and airing radio editorials in support of the downtown project.
The developer of the peripheral mall is reported to have told the radio station manager, "If Atkins is not taken off the air, I will withdraw all the advertising dollars that would come from the peripheral project!" (That probably meant several dozens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.)
Money talks very loudly, especially in the media...I went silent, at the direction of the station manager, to my own disappointment and also that of the supporters of the downtown project. The peripheral mall was built and the downtown atrophied dramatically. Euphemistically, some would say it "transitioned" from retail to professional offices and locally owned boutiques.
Inside the church, I found more of the abuse of power so reminiscent of the lawyer-father with the letter threatening legal action. Those on the right wing do not stop at mere gossip to destroy the character of one whose liberal "theology"they find heretical. They take action to remove such people, as me, in order to preserve the purity of "their" institution, much as the Pope did to Matthew Fox, with he excommunicated him for publishing Original Blessing the kind of refreshing look at "original sin" which has, for centuries, bound the church and its members in a kind of tyranny of both thought and belief, directed, dictated and imposed by the church hierarchy.
A similar tight-assed theology constricts much of the christian church community's perception of God, God's wishes for his disciples, God's perception of how to live a healthy spiritual life, through condemning those whose lives to not comply or conform to the kind of standard they believe, speaking for God, they must.
I have, and will continue to oppose, to confront and to push back on the right wing in both politics and in religion, and the whole thing started very early in my life, when, as an innocent, I rejected the way power was used by those who had some, however limited, status and power in their respective arenas.
Incidentally, although I had not heard the phrase until only a couple of decades ago, I apparently was born and grew up in what many in this province call "the most conservative town in Ontario".
Unfortunately for those who went before me in that town, their indoctrination did not "take" in my case, unless total and complete rebellion was what they sought in their young men and women.
When Rex Murphy writes in  the National Post that he finds it difficult to understand why so many Canadians vilify Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I would merely reply to Murphy, "Some of us, including me, simply do not trust him!"
I learned how to distrust conservative use of power and authority very early and very deeply.

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