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Small Talk

Paradise in place of parking lots; Stephen Hawking's academic boycott of Israel, and Russell Brand's Messiah Complex

7 minute read
Small Talk October 1, 2013  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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British comedian Russell Brand brought his Messiah Complex World Tour 2013 to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in August. The Ottawa Citizen's reviewer conveyed the gist of Brand's act: "The show, as the publicity material trumpets, also features Jesus Christ, Che Guevara, Ghandi, Malcolm X and Hitler. Those five, most of them heroes with flaws that Brand illustrated and one a villain with very human qualities that the comic also underscored, were shown in images on the stage or a video screen and woven into his overall narrative."1 One presumes the villain with human qualities is Hitler. We are not told whether Brand praised the very human qualities of Jesus, or just His perfect human nature. Most of them are heroes with flaws? Hitler is not a hero, and Jesus did not have flaws, so that leaves Che, Malcolm X and the Mahatma as possible taxonomic candidates, and one would find it hard to put the last in the same category as the first two. Sometimes the "overall narrative" makes it hard to keep the details straight.

The current film The Butler depicts the life of a black White House butler who served eight presidents. It raised four pairs of eyebrows among esteemed historians who saw it. "As historians of the 40th president, having written more than a dozen biographies between us, we are troubled by the movie's portrayal of [Ronald] Reagan's attitudes towards race," wrote Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner in the Washington Post.2 The film, they claim, portrays Reagan as racially insensitive to blacks when the historical record shows the opposite. Is it a big deal? Yes. "We are especially concerned because many Americans readily accept Hollywood depictions of history as factual." The issue is serious, but one imagines Reagan laughing over historians defending the former president of the Screen Actors Guild against Hollywood. Reagan himself occasionally lived by that sword, styling himself the Gipper of Notre Dame fame. And if Hollywood is to have the final word, a few Americans may wrongly conclude that Reagan was prejudiced against blacks, but as Bedtime for Bonzo reminded us, he was very kind to animals.

The Butler marked Oprah Winfrey's return to film. She was at the real White House in August to pick up her Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian—or is it celebrity?—award in the United States. President Obama had one for Bill Clinton, too, compensating him for not getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor of Watergate fame, also picked one up—a perfect choice. He is a celebrity because a famous actor, Jason Robards, played him in the movies. Some foreign leaders have gotten the medal, including such worthies as Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, as well as those less accomplished such as John Howard of Australia or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. No Canadian prime minister has ever qualified, not even Pierre Trudeau with his glamorous girlfriends. It was good to see Dean Smith, longtime University of North Carolina basketball coach – perhaps most famous for coaching Michael Jordan to a national championship in 1982—join John Wooden in the ranks of coaches so decorated. Smith did something truly heroic in the 1960s in North Carolina when he was a leader in the fight against segregation. Acutely aware that black athletes the National Collegiate Athletic Association celebrated came from families where too many were unjustly incarcerated, Smith would sometimes hold practices in prisons. Finally, Loretta Lynn got the medal this year, even though it should have posthumously gone to Johnny Cash to mark the 10th anniversary of his death.

Love of animals is somewhat lacking on Shakhter Karagandy, a Kazakh soccer team that before big games sacrifices a live sheep in the stadium. Such was the case in the Astana Arena in Kazakhstan before Shakhter Karagandy upset Celtic 2-0 on August 20 in their league qualifying match.3 Animal sacrifice has a long history associated with sports, but surely Detroit has a better idea: Red Wings fans only throw octopi on the ice after a humane death. Dead sheep raining down on the pitch, however humanely killed, is rather more impractical.

It's going to be a busy fall for Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous theoretical physicist—admittedly not a category chock full of contenders. His autobiography, My Brief History, came out in September and an eponymous documentary of his life premiered at the same time. Hawking spent several weeks in Waterloo, Ont., during the last few summers as a scholar at the Perimeter Institute, where a building bears his name. It's an honour to have Hawking in Canada; he's a gifted physicist, even if a rather poor philosopher. While Hawking is happy to come here, he refuses to go to Israel. Or at least he refused to go to a conference hosted by President Shimon Peres in June, at which he had been scheduled to participate. Hawking has been to Israel before, but this time the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement persuaded Hawking to honour its call for an academic boycott of Israel in protest of Israeli policies. The BDS movement is more than a protest against Israeli policies, which are much debated in Israeli society and its democratic institutions. It aims to delegitimize Israel in the family of nations and more than flirts with rhetoric questioning whether Israel should continue to exist. Professor Hawking can speak his mind on Israel, and could do so in Israel. That he won't go there to honour a dubious boycott of suspect motivations reflects more poorly on him than on his presumptive hosts. If he boycotts Israel, it makes it rather less of an honour when he visits Waterloo.

Evaluating Pope Francis' first foreign trip as pope, Macleans made an odd comparison after he went to Rio de Janeiro: "[It] thrust him into the Latin American political picture as a straight-talking moral authority in a region rife with inequality, corruption and violence. It also filled a void left by the most prominent and controversial politician, late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer. ‘He's the new giant of both the Latin American political and religious landscapes,' says Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. ‘He's much bigger than Chávez because of his far greater appeal.'"4 The successor of Saint Peter is bigger than Hugo Chávez? Good to know. But it brought to mind what was heard in Rome after the March conclave. With Chávez dying on March 5 and Francis elected on March 13, Latin Americans from Mexico to Argentina exulted in the "best week Latin America has ever had." In Argentina the rejoicing was great, but greater still was it in Venezuela.

In the last issue, we had a bit of fun with airport names. We did pass over the airport in Singapore. I have never been there, but it routinely wins awards as one of the most outstanding airports in the world. Not resting on its laurels, Changi Airport has unveiled a massive expansion called "Project Jewel," designed by Moshe Safdie, that will add several acres of new amenities, including a huge indoor garden with its own waterfall.5 To build the new project, Changi will lose one parkade. It took 40 years after Joni Mitchell wrote "Big Yellow Taxi," but it finally happened: To put up paradise, they razed a parking lot.

International smuggler or fighter for dairy freedom? It's the former, but it is hard to get too worked up over a scofflaw cop in Fort Erie, Ont. Casey Langelaan, who is no longer with the Niagara regional police, was sentenced this summer after being caught smuggling chicken wings and cheese across the border. There wasn't much of a market for his concealed chicken, but the cheese was a different matter. Selling the clandestine curds to local restaurants, Langelaan managed to pocket $50,000 in profits. The arbitrage opportunity exists because Canada's supply management system levies high tariffs on foreign milk, butter and cheese, which is why Canadians pay much more than Americans do for those products. The federal government is involved in various free trade negotiations that might reduce those tariffs and bring costs down, but that has been discussed for generations. Meanwhile, the residents of Niagara can rest easy knowing that they dwell in a peaceable land where bad apples (and mouldy cheese?) in the police force means contraband cheddar.

Summer in Canada is short, but not too short to run, walk, wheel or roll from sea to sea. Ever since Terry Fox captured the heart of the nation in 1981, a neverending stream of enterprising, if quirky, Canadians have followed the long hours of summer sun from east to west in the service of one good cause or another. Thomas Chantley was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 26. Happily, he is now cancer-free at age 30. So he set out to walk from Toronto to Vancouver, rolling a giant six-metre-wide inflatable ball.6 Why? To raise awareness, of course. I am not sure how far Mr. Chantley and his enormous ball got, but one hopes, for the driving families of Canada, not far. And one hopes whatever awareness he raised, it did not capture the imagination of some young man who survived bowel cancer, awaiting the arrival of spring to chase the sun, giant inflatable intestines in tow.

Summer, I suppose, comes to an end with Labour Day, but summer customs can be stretched to Thanksgiving if need be. And gin and tonic is one summer custom that can appropriately accompany the reading of the October issue of Convivium if you read it straight away. This thought was prompted by my coming across this Winston Churchill observation: "The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire." Malaria is not much of an issue in the Thousand Islands, but your editor has been vigilant this summer.

Summer's over; back to school. Some students at Dalhousie University in Halifax had to spend part of the summer in school making up for courses they had failed. As much as 15 per cent of engineering students are flunking out and are blaming the amount of time they spend on social media for their poor grades. Too much Facebook, too few books. CBC reports that counsellors are teaching students that dozens of hours online each week can have a detrimental impact on their grades. That's why we publish Convivium only bimonthly. More often than that and one can only imagine the damage done to studies, jobs and family life.


1. Patrick Langston, "British comic Russell Brand sticks to what sells in Ottawa show," Ottawa Citizen, August 23, 2013

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2. "What The Butler Gets Wrong About Ronald Reagan and Race" Washington Post, August 30, 2013

3. "PETA fumes over Champions League sheep sacrifive," QMI Agency, August 23, 2013



6. "'Ballsy' man rolling giant ball across Canada," Newstalk 1010, August 5, 2013



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