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Small Talk

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Small Talk February 1, 2014  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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Maclean's magazine has a new feature of short news commentaries at the front of the issue. They might have called it Small Talk, but we already did, so they opted for Good News/Bad News. Herewith a bad news item noting that Pope Francis "has made it a top priority to reach out to atheists and marginalized Catholics." That's not the bad news. This is: "But, if the Vatican is truly committed to being progressive, this particular strategy won't help: The Church is reportedly training a new generation of priests to perform exorcisms. Because possession by the Devil is apparently real."1 Being snarky is not the same as being witty, but leave that aside. Francis talks about the Devil a lot – quite a bit more than his predecessors ever did. Perhaps because he thinks that progress, like salvation, first requires something to get away from or be saved from. If the Devil is real, it rather makes preaching God's merciful love more urgent. Francis is also cultured enough to have read in any number of literary pieces what the French poet Baudelaire wrote in 1864, namely that "the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist." Consider Maclean's well and truly tricked. Diabolically so.

An enduring tradition in our national news business is the Canadian angle. An airplane goes down between D üsseldorf and Dubai, killing dozens of passengers, and Maclean's will tell us that the pilot's sister-in-law is studying in Canada. So I was surprised that the Canadian angle did not get greater play during the fiasco of the Obamacare website launch. A massive embarrassment for the administration's signature program turned out to be Canada's fault. The website's design was entrusted to a Canadian firm, Conseillers en gestion et informatique or, as it calls itself in the United States to disguise its northern home, CGI. The Montreal-based information technology giant took on the massive task of putting together a national website to organize health insurance for tens of millions of people, and it flopped. In fairness to CGI, it may not have known that the Americans expected anything different. After all, expectations were rather loose at home. CGI had the contract for the federal firearms registry, a $2 million project that cost $2 billion and didn't work. Nothing daunted, CGI moved on to run the Ontario government's diabetes registry, another multimillion dollar failure. But there is nothing like an American government contract, and CGI made the big time, like Michael J. Fox getting a prime-time sitcom. There weren't many laughs after the roll-out fiasco, and the administration promised hasty repairs — and promised that they had learned their lesson. Which is that they should pay more attention to Canada.

Information technology-wise, the American government is breathing fire about Edward Snowden, whom they regard as a traitor for revealing the extent of the National Security Agency's (unconstitutional?) surveillance program. Washington may not be able to register you for health insurance, but it can sift through your cell phone records — or listen to Angela Merkel's for that matter. Snowden thinks of himself as a patriot rather than a traitor. "I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA," he said. "I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don't realize it." In response, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said: "Mr. Snowden faces felony charges here in the United States and should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be afforded due process and all the protections of our criminal justice system." Being afforded all the protections of the criminal "justice" system is what Snowden fears. Snowden revealed secrets about how the government shreds liberties when it thinks no one is watching. Are such liberties any more secure when people are?

Snowden was given temporary asylum in Russia by Vladimir Putin on the grounds that a) it would out-manoeuvre and embarrass President Barack Obama, b) it is easy to outmanoeuvre and embarrass Obama and c) Putin enjoys outmanoeuvring and embarrassing Obama very much. Obama must have thought that an old KGB head-cracking autocrat like Putin would have been sympathetic to the NSA's mass surveillance of the American (and global) citizenry and handed Snowden over to be punished for exposing if not the secret police, the secrets the police were keeping. Perhaps Putin, a secret policeman himself, was sympathetic to Snowden's plight, knowing what the KGB used to do to those who ran afoul of it. In any case, whatever one might think of Snowden's leaks, it is impossible to consider him a fugitive from justice, for one thing is absolutely sure. If he were to return to the United States, justice is the one thing the American intelligence and security state would not afford him.

It's been a tough winter. Tough enough to need a Canada Goose parka? The Canadian company — named after the winged vermin that gives life to the scatological expression "he went through it like s--- through a goose" — has experienced a boom in recent years, with their high-end parkas becoming a most fashionable item. The parkas are advertised as being up to the rigours of an Arctic expedition, which, even with the recent ice storms, is rather more than most Canadians would need. Nevertheless, the Canada Goose logo is highly desired, and people are willing to pay $700 or more for the pleasure of wearing it. There are also those who consider it foolish to buy a $700 parka when a $200 one would suffice for most days and so might opt for another brand that might, just coincidentally, also have a circular logo that looks just like the Canada Goose version. Sears, for example, has one just like that. So Canada Goose is suing Sears for copyright infringement.2 Which doesn't seem like typical Canadian friendliness, but then the Canada Goose itself is a beastly neighbour. Canada Goose knows what it is doing. The old line was that a good salesman could sell ice to an Eskimo. Perhaps it could be updated to include those who sell people parkas they don't need at prices they can't afford under a branded animal they ought to be embarrassed about.

On the topic of Canadian attire, Montreal's popular band Arcade Fire announced that for its current tour, a dress code would be in effect. Fans are told that it is mandatory to wear "formal dress or a costume." 3 I am, as a matter of principle, rather in favour of dress codes, and given how most people show up on stage, let alone in the crowd, higher standards at music concerts are most welcome. There used to be a time when dressing up to go out was an attraction of the event—a feature, not a bug, as they did not say back then. To critics of the dress code, the band has replied: "We're not sorry." Rebellion in the world of rock music now means dressing up. For consistency's sake, will French-cuff shirts rather than T-shirts be on sale in the concourse?

Everyone was dressed most elegantly for the funeral Mass of Vito Rizzuto, the leader of the Montreal Mafia, who died just before Christmas. He died of natural causes, which is rather unnatural in his line of work; both his son and his father were shot dead by rival Mafiosi. The funeral Mass was held at Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense in Montreal's Little Italy. Mafiosi tend to like elaborate baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals. What would Francis Ford Coppola have done without them in the Godfather films? Why a funeral for a notorious underworld figure was permitted in Montreal was not explained. When John Gotti, the celebrity head of the Gambino crime family died in 2002, the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn refused to permit him a funeral Mass. It is unseemly to accord public funerals to people whose entire lives are dedicated to public evils, and the Brooklyn decision was entirely sensible. CTV News found that some were taking it in stride. "Nicole Fortier, a longtime parishioner at Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense who also came to watch, said she has no issue with the church's decision to accord Rizzuto a funeral. ‘We're all humans,' she said. ‘It's not for us to judge.'"

Montreal has Little Italy and fine cucina italiana, but it also has fabulous Jewish delis—even if the most famous of them, Schwartz's, is no longer Jewish-owned. Kabul is a different story. The culinary scene apparently has taken something of a hit as the Afghan city's deteriorating security situation has put a damper on dining out. Which means that Balkh Bastan café is going to close, the kebab trade not being as lucrative as it used to be. The proprietor, Zabulon Simintov, is not sure what he will do next. It may be that, having lost his business, he will leave Afghanistan to join his family abroad. That would be noteworthy, for Simintov is Afghanistan's last Jew.4 If he leaves, there will be no Jews in Kabul or anywhere else in that country. But at least there is one Jew left in Afghanistan. There is not a single publicly known Christian on Afghanistan's soil, and there are no Christian churches. The Italian diplomatic compound is the only place where Christian worship takes place. The allied efforts in Afghanistan—to which Canada made a notable contribution—toppled the Taliban but failed otherwise. More than 10 years after Americans, Canadians and others invaded to chase out al-Qaeda, Afghanistan is both Christian-free and almost Jew-free. There are few wars lost so completely.

Afghanistan is free of Christians, but what about Britain? The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, is on one of his favourite jeremiads again, predicting that "Christianity is a generation away from extinction" in Britain.5 Lord Carey regularly speaks of the end of Christianity in Britain, which is not true. For example, Scotland has seen a marked increase in church attendance in recent years. True, the increase has been among Polish immigrants, meaning that there are now more Catholics going to church in Scotland than Presbyterians, but they are still Christians. Lord Carey is more on the mark when he speaks about the Church of England, which is less suited to receiving an influx of energy from immigrant groups because it is, well, the Church of England. Anglicanism is in dire straits in Britain. It is not unusual for Anglican parishes to have no young people at all. But Christianity is, as the English might put it, a doughty old bird, and sources of renewal abound in God's surprising Providence. A good persecution would help, but British society is rather too flaccid to rouse itself for that. Help will come from abroad, where Anglicanism in its African incarnations is doing very well. The last Christian in Britain? Not just yet.


1. "Slaying its demons," Maclean's, January 20, 2011, p.11.

2. "Canada Goose suing Sears for selling imitation jackets," The Kingston Whig Standard, November 9, 2013.

3. "Arcade Fire isn't sorry for 'dress code' it issued to fans for concerts,", November 19, 2013.

4. "The last Jew in Afghanistan may be leaving," The Toronto Star, December 8, 2013.

5."Christianity at risk of dying out in a generation, warns Lord Carey," The Daily Telegraph, November 18, 2013.


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