Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Douglas’

Contrary to narrative conventions, very little of anyone’s personality is decided in a single moment. More often, our traits and beliefs are the result of a number of incidents and how we choose to link them. However, an exception for me is the moment that steered me towards being a leftist.

It was at my maternal grandfather’s house when I was ten. His house was a block away from the United Church where I attended Sunday school, and I used to wait there for my mother to pick me up afterwords. In fact, for several years, the main reason I kept going to Sunday school was so I could spend time with my grandfather afterwords, and be fed milk and cookies and read Prince Valiant in the local newspaper to which my parents didn’t subscribe.

A federal election campaign was on, and my mother and grandfather were in his kitchen, talking about. I was in the living room waiting for them. I wasn’t really listening; just letting their conversation wash over me without really following it, the way that you do when you’re a child and the adults around you are discussing something that doesn’t really interest you.

As we were leaving, I went out into the kitchen to say goodbye, and my grandfather asked me, “And who are you going to vote for?”

This was the election of Trudeaumania, which Pierre Trudeau was busy kissing all the women in the crowds and showing himself all elegance and gallantry and supposed youth. In fact, he was forty-nine, and only a few years younger than his main opponent, and even at ten, I thought him insincere. So I wasn’t going to answer with his name.

The only trouble was, I couldn’t remember the leaders of the other parties. Wanting to say something so I wouldn’t sound stupid, I remembered a name I had heard in my mother’s and grandfather’s discussion.

“Tommy Douglas,” I said.

Both my mother and grandfather laughed, long and loudly. My grandfather, I remembered too late, had been denigrating Tommy Douglas, the leader of the New Democrats, so he was the last person I should have named, although I wasn’t sure why.

At the moment, all I knew is that I had tried to be clever and knowing, and had failed spectacularly.

But that was enough for the name to lodge in my mind. Over the next few months, I learned that Tommy Douglas had been premier of Saskatchewan, and a well-respected one. Not only that, he had organized the first universal health care in all of North America, and made it work. As for the New Democrats, they were social democrats and socialists, and talked about change and justice for all. They were also the perennial underdogs, always the third party in federal politics. They never formed a government, but somehow their ideas slowly became mainstream enough that Trudeau’s Liberal party always borrowed them.

I was already addicted to stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, each of whom was looking in his own way for justice. So it wasn’t long before I decided that “Tommy Douglas” was a pretty good reply after all, no matter who laughed at it. I kept following what the New Democrats were doing, and, started being interested in other social causes. Eight years after my answer to my grandfather, my first vote was for a local New Democrat candidate. I’ve sometimes chafed at the mildness of the New Democrat’s platform, but I’ve never voted for any other party since.

I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if my answer had been taken seriously, or if I had been asked the reason for my choice. I couldn’t have explained, but maybe I would have quickly forgot the name I blurted out, and arrived at my current political positions by some other route. But sometimes, the memory makes me feel that personality is a fragile and mysterious thing, that it can depend on something so small as a moment of failed cleverness and embarrassment.

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Today is Document Freedom Day, a promotion of non-proprietary standards like Open Document Format. Around the world, small groups of free and open source software (FOSS)users are holding events to educate others about the importance of this issue, and The Free Software Foundation has launched a campaign to encourage supporters to politely refuse attachments sent in proprietary formats like Microsoft Office’s. And, inevitably some people are saying these efforts are useless – and proving that they miss the point.

In circumstances like these, the critics’ usual argument goes something like this: Campaigning against something does nothing to stop people using it. They say that a street protest against Apple’s so-called Digital Rights Management technology will do nothing to stop the sales of iPads. Nor will promoting Open Document Format stop the majority from using Microsoft’s .docx format. So, they ask, why bother to take a stand?

Perhaps in the narrowest sense, they have a point. Document Freedom Day will not stop large number of users from entrusting their documents to Microsoft Office formats. Nor will very many switch to Koffice, OpenOffice.org, or any other office application that uses Open Document Format.

However, what the critics fail to appreciate is that ultimate success is not what these promotions and campaigns are really about. Yes, their organizers talk as though persuading everybody to their cause is the point, but they are neither stupid or naive. If you press them, they will admit that they do not really expect that millions of computer users will suddenly flock to their side.

So what is the point? I can think of at least three:

First, while such campaigns do not win millions of supporters, they can win dozens. Each time FOSS advocates staff a table on a university campus, or hand out pamphlets on the street, a few people stop to ask questions and become convinced. Others may not immediately support the cause, but they at least learn (often for the first time) that alternatives exist. Even if they are not ripe for switching to free software today, they may grow more critical of proprietary software and eventually start investigating free software some time in the future. These are the kinds of small victories by which FOSS has always spread, and they should not be overlooked.

Second, these campaigns are a way of encouraging existing supporters. When you hold a minority viewpoint, you get tired of seeing opposing views around you. You become accustomed to holding your tongue because you don’t want to bore your friends. You don’t want a reputation as an obsessive who is more concerned with what others consider side-issues than with getting on with the task at hand. When you are accustomed to restraining yourself, standing up and expressing what you actually think and feel is a refreshing relief. Doing so reaffirms your beliefs, and renews your commitment over the long-haul. In a sense, these campaigns are celebrations of the existing community – a way of keeping existing supporters as much as gaining new ones.

However, even if the campaigns had no other purpose, they would still be worthwhile in the same way that spoiling your ballot or voting for a minority party in an election is worthwhile.

In this sense, I am reminded how Tommy Douglas, the founder of universal medical coverage in Canada, explained why he stood by his social democratic beliefs when most of them had no chance of being widely accepted:

You say the little efforts that I make will do no good; they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in balance. I don’t think I ever thought they would, but I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

In other words, sometimes you need to stand up for what you know is right, regardless of consequences, simply out of self-respect. Campaigns like Document Freedom Day give the opportunity for such self-reaffirmation, and I would support them for that reason alone, even if more practical reasons did not exist as well.

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