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Small Talk

An eclectic and ecumenical roundup of incidents, events and oddities that catch our editor's eye.

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Small Talk October 18, 2011  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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It didn't take Michael Ignatieff long to land on his feet after leading the Liberal Party to its worst showing ever. He cleaned out his desk and acquired a new one at Massey College in Toronto within days of his catastrophic defeat. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he offered one of those essays he spent a lifetime abroad writing: the great thinker explaining "What It All Means." For this declaration, he could have been back at Harvard, writing about America in the post-9/11 decade, though this time he did not use the first person. The piece casts 9/11 as the first in a series of "sovereign failures," wherein the state failed spectacularly—9/11, Katrina, the financial crisis, and now the sovereign debt insolvencies. All these state failures have meant that "people have lost faith in government." The lesson should be the opposite, Professor Ignatieff argues. The repeated failures of the State ought to remind us how important the State is and how rebuilding its "legitimacy" is our most urgent political task. It's counter-intuitive to be sure, but that's why the professor was too clever for elected politics. In defence of state power, he writes: "A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure." A hand goes up at the back of the class: Is the State really the object of ultimate allegiance? Is it really the only source of law? Canadians chose wisely in keeping such ideas far from political power.

What's the difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholics anyway? Not much, apparently. "The differences are slight," we are told by the Toronto Star. "They use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians don't consider the Pope a divine figure." So writes Murray Whyte. No one expects Whyte to know anything more about religion than anyone else at the Star, so it is sad but not surprising that he doesn't know that Catholics don't consider the Pope divine. But does he really consider a dispute about whether a man is or is not divine to be "slight"? Imagine if the Star had been covering the court of Constantine back in the fourth century. Breaking news from Nicaea: Arius and Athanasius quibble over slight differences.

During the G20 Summit in Toronto last year, some 90 police officers removed their name tags to prevent identification in the case of police misconduct, charges of which soon followed. There can be disputes about police tactics, but none about an attempt to be unaccountable for those tactics. The 90 officers were docked a day's pay as punishment. This past summer the Toronto police chief submitted his annual recommendations for promotions, and they included nine officers who had removed their name tags. The police board declined to approve promotions for those nine, an unprecedented step that led the police union to file a grievance against the board. Being promoted in the same year as being punished seems rather an unusual practice, and good on the police board for insisting on serious consequences for officers who orchestrated a scheme to avoid accountability for their actions. The conduct of the police during the G20 left much to be desired. Even worse, after the fact, the various inquiries faced all manner of obfuscation from the police. The police chief and the union evidently believe that it's business as usual. The civilian police board is right to insist that it's not.

No problem removing name tags or anything else at Toronto's annual Pride parade. In a harsher, more repressive time, it was called Gay Pride. But then gay seemed awfully exclusive and one spoke instead of the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—community. Now it is just Pride Toronto, and it "exists to celebrate the history, courage, diversity and future of Toronto's LGBTTIQQ2SA communities." That's a mouthful but less taxing then the whole shebang: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, 2 spirited, allies. If you don't know who's what, it's better not to ask. But the broad appeal of the entire LGBTTIQQ2SA spectrum certainly accounts for why, as we are told every year, there are a million people at the parade. Even including the intersex and the questioning (aren't those the journalists?), it was wildly implausible that a full 20 per cent of the entire population of the Greater Toronto Area would wander downtown for some 2-spirited celebration. This year, Maclean's magazine finally exposed the fraudulent number—one that lazy "news reporters" used for years. Maclean's did the math, and one million people couldn't fit on the parade route. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was blasted for not attending Toronto Pride. Perhaps he thought it would be too crowded.

In a happier time for Kennedy torchbearers, the summer of 2011 would have featured all sorts of gauzy reminiscences of JFK's inaugural year as president, 50 years on from the arrival of Camelot. But instead, 2011 brought The Kennedys, a TV miniseries that aired in Canada during the summer months. It is a devastating portrait of an unscrupulous and deeply corrupt pursuit of power, and unsparing in its portrayal of Joseph Kennedy, Sr., as a thoroughly repellent man. The final scene is a flashback to the evening of JFK's inauguration. He and Jackie, RFK and Ethel, Joe, Sr., and Rose—all are in the Oval Office. The screenwriters imagine that the family is proposing toasts. JFK drinks to America. Rose offers a prayer that God's will be done. Joe, Sr., proposes a toast to the family. In the end, they all drink to Joe, Sr., himself. It's a telling image. Amidst the various loyalties that ought to claim one's allegiance—family, country, God—they hoist their glasses to a man who subjugated all of that to his vaulting ambition. Corrupt dynasties seem to be in vogue on the small screen. There was The Tudors, and then this year The Borgias. Joe Kennedy and his clan fit the mould more or less, but they are rather less accomplished, and far less interesting.

He is the forgotten man of global Christianity. The Ecumenical Patriarch, the primus inter pares (or first among equals, if we can use a little Latin in regard to the Greeks!), of the Orthodox Church gets far less attention than he ought. Partly, that is because of the long-standing policy of the Turkish government to slowly strangle the ancient patriarchate of Constantinople, restricting its pastoral activity, harassing its seminary and interfering in the process of succession. Due to that and other factors, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the second Rome, presides over a local Christian population in Istanbul of only a few thousand souls. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on August 28, 2011, that his government would return hundreds of pieces of religious property—including schools, orphanages and hospitals—that were confiscated by the government in 1936. The properties belonged to officially recognized religious minorities: Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Catholics, Syrian Orthodox and Catholics, and Chaldean Catholics. The Greek Orthodox stand to benefit most, and it may allow some much needed breathing room for the primatial see of Orthodoxy. Turkey is officially a secular state, but its brand of secularism features state control over all religions—including the majority religion of Islam. Whether this announcement is a first step toward relaxing the grip of the state on Christianity in Turkey remains to be seen, but it is a welcome bit of good news for the beleaguered Christians in Constantinople.

Is there any reading lighter than the inflight magazine? Spa treatments in Icelandic caves, gadgets to avoid roaming charges in Nepal, exotic hotels to be had at rates comparable to college tuition fees. So it was a departure from usual practice when enRoute featured the winning short story from the CBC Literary Awards—a fluffy tale about dear old dad jumping to his death from the Bloor Street Viaduct to the Don Valley Parkway below. The short story is presented as "snapshots from my father's euthanasia road trip." Dad is in New Brunswick and decides it's time to die, but in order to execute the desired plan in Toronto, he needs his daughter to drive him there. Driving alone, he might fall asleep and meet an unintended tragic end. Which would rather foul up the intended tragic end, so father and daughter set out—destination suicide. It's not a great story, but one doesn't expect that from an in-flight magazine. One expects the banal. It's rather frightening that the euthanasia road trip is considered such.

Here's a notice about a new book, The Novice, from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King. The publishers describe the book as being "in the tradition of Deepak Chopra." Leaving aside whether or not there is such a tradition, one doubts whether the author—a scholar and holy man—would consider Deepak Chopra a model. I guess you can't judge an author by his publicists.

The greatest golfer of all time introduced some innovations to the tradition-loving sport. Over the Labour Day weekend at Muirfield Village Golf Club, his signature golf course in Dublin, Ohio, Jack Nicklaus hosted tournaments in which the competitors played 12 holes instead of 18 and the hole itself was nearly double in size: eight inches in diameter instead of the usual 4¼. Apparently the goal was to attract new golfers at a time of declining participation in the sport. Anyone who has missed a putt might welcome the wider cup, but dumbing down golf does have a faint whiff of desperation about it. No word on whether Tiger Woods tried his luck there on Labour Day.

Cantaloupe perhaps, maybe honeydew, but no watermelon. The fruit is banned at Empire Field, where the BC Lions play. Saskatchewan was in town last August, and where the Roughriders play, their marvellous fans follow, some of them showing their Rider pride by wearing watermelon helmets. The security people at Empire Field, being a humourless lot, banned the watermelons, citing the always lame "safety" rationale. It would be hard to imagine anyone getting hurt with a watermelon, especially one hollowed out for use as a helmet, thereby removing the dangerous seeds. One suspects that embarrassment at the number of Roughrider fans at Empire Field might also have motivated the decision. But banning the watermelon on security grounds? That's just cowardly, Lions.


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