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Small Talk

The smoke-free posse burgles Santa's pipe; the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson busts a howler, and our editor-in-chief warns of bishops bursting their buttons.

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Topics: Literature, Cultural Renewal, Health
Small Talk November 1, 2012  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The National Post couldn't resist putting it on the front page. The editor of a new edition of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas has edited out Santa's pipe and his head wreathed in smoke. It's the work of "smoking cessation advocate" Pamela McColl, who writes on the cover that the book is "edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of the children of the 21st century." The author, Clement C. Moore, died in the mid-19th century, so he no longer gets a say. Ms. McColl claims that, heretofore, parents have been ripping pages out of their children's books to hide Santa's filthy habit from the children, who might otherwise be afraid Santa would die before he finished his rounds. Really? What happens when the little ones discover that Santa is fat? Or "chubby and plump" as the poem puts it? Isn't a belly "that shook while he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly" just another way of promoting childhood obesity—the inevitable consequence of dreaming of sugar plums? Ms. McColl should protect kids from the fat man, too. Why can't Santa have rock-hard abs and be careful to lift his sack of toys with his knees? Convivium wishes its readers a very happy Christmas indeed. By the way, the editor-in-chief advises against the pipe; he prefers a cigar.


It is possible to teach rightly and govern wisely while living indulgently, but Christian pastors should not attempt it. Sybaritic living weakens the will, and a weak will drags down the intellect. The Episcopal Church in the United States held its General Convention this past summer, and asceticism was not on the agenda. The Wall Street Journal reports, "It's one of the world's largest such legislative entities, with more than 1,000 members. General Convention is also notable for its sheer ostentation and carnival atmosphere. For seven straight nights, lavish cocktail parties spilled into pricey steakhouses where bishops could use their diocesan funds to order bottles of the finest wines." Bishops of all communions face the same temptation and should be wary of the kind of indulgent banquets at which Belshazzar or Herod would be comfortable. Bishops should know that, even without the handwriting on the wall.


Each new book season brings another title about someone doing something unusual for a year and then writing a book about it: The Year of Living Biblically, The Year of Living Generously, The Year of Frugal Living—you get the idea. Vox Media, an online media company, has something of a twist on the idea. Over at their online magazine, The Verge, writer Paul Miller is spending the entire year offline—no Internet, no email, no text messages. Except that, of course, Miller is posting online updates. (Does he file by fax?) Miller acknowledges that most people are professionally obligated to be online, whereas he is being paid to go offline. But the results may yield lessons. "I have zero regrets about leaving the Internet. I'm only three months in, and I can honestly say that this is turning into the best year of my life. I'm vaguely famous, I've lost 10 pounds, and I've read a few classic books I've always wanted to spend time with. I think I'm on track to figure some stuff out about how to live in a modern society without being purely shaped by it. Not everything, but maybe just a little bit." To live in the online world without being determined by it—that's not a bad analogy for the Christian life, which is to be lived in the world but not according to it.


In 2011, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), an ever reliable promoter of all things fashionable, announced the opening of a school for black students. A lot of black kids have problems in school, so the school board thought perhaps it could do something to help them, which showed an admirable level of concern for a vulnerable population. What was proposed was a more "Africentric" curriculum and, despite much ridicule, the TDSB forged ahead, determined to show that a curriculum with less Martin Luther and more Martin Luther King would unleash wellsprings of black creativity and industry. This September, the first Africentric program was launched at Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough. (Does Churchill make the cut in an Africentric history course?) Good thing they didn't build them a new school, because six students enrolled. Six. In Toronto. Two of the three Africentric teachers were subsequently reassigned. But not to worry that this bold pedagogical venture will founder. There are high hopes that the first graduating class of the Africentric elementary school next spring will boost the high school intake next fall. Number of students in that graduating class? Seven.


Part of the distinct society's distinctive approach to politics is the corruption inquiry. The Gomery Commission threw sand in the gears of Paul Martin's juggernaut, and now the Charbonneau Commission has put an end to the premiership of Jean Charest and the mayoralty of Montreal's Gerald Tremblay. The current inquiry, headed by Judge France Charbonneau, is charged with investigating corruption in the construction industry and has uncovered bribes, kickbacks and the rigging of contracts. Links between such corrupt practices, often coordinated by criminal syndicates, and municipal and provincial party financing are lifting the veil on a very shadowy part of Quebec politics. The Charbonneau Commission bears watching not only as an examination of a sordid past but in relation to the future. The 1970s edition of the Quebec corruption inquiry, the Cliche Commission, launched the public careers of Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard. The Charbonneau Commission may indeed wrap up its work as Quebecers mark the 40th anniversary of the Cliche Commission. Can you say déjà vu all over again en français?


The federal government erected a plaque in honour of Dr. Helen MacMurchy in Ottawa recently, to commemorate her work in public health in the early 20th century. The unveiling was uneventful, but the day after was unusual. The Ottawa Citizen takes up the story: "Joy Smith, the Manitoba Tory MP who unveiled the plaque at Tunney's Pasture on behalf of Environment Minister Peter Kent, called on the government not to install it after a Citizen story outlined Dr. MacMurchy's leading role as an advocate for eugenics, a type of scientific racism that flourished between 1865 and 1945." Indeed, the MP said she would have "run from the ceremony" had she known that Dr. MacMurchy promoted eugenics, which considered the "feeble-minded" a "menace to society." The office of Peter Kent hastily announced that the plaque would be withdrawn and complained that it had been "blindsided" by the news. No doubt that's true, but anyone studying public health officials of the 1920s and 1930s ought to have known eugenics might be an issue. After all, eugenics was the province of progressive opinion then. When I was studying economics at the University of Cambridge, one of the awkward bits of local history was the enthusiasm for eugenics among the political economists of that day, including John Maynard Keynes and Joan Robinson. It was only the atrocities of the Nazis, who ran a eugenics program backed by fearsome State power, that took the shine off the eugenics movement. But eugenics did not end in 1945. It is back and flourishing once again, using prenatal diagnosis to snuff out the lives of baby girls as well as those with Down syndrome and other abnormalities. Those who are unaware of the popularity of eugenics a century ago are likely to overlook its return today.


Theatre impresario David Mirvish has commissioned super-architect Frank Gehry to design three condominium towers for downtown Toronto. The towers are enormous—some 85 storeys tall—and will adorn the theatre district, not far from the Art Gallery of Ontario, another Gehry project. Are 2,600 units in what would be Toronto's tallest condo towers a sound investment given the widespread view that the building boom of recent years may have produced a condo bubble waiting to burst? "Even as the market is softening," reports the Financial Post, "a record 224 condo projects with 58,995 units are under construction in Toronto." But Frank Gehry is not worried, or at least not worried about the Mirvish project. "Of course the condo bubble in Toronto is on my mind," he says, "but we're in the early beginnings of it. The culture of the city and the condo boom has nothing to do with me. That's your problem." When the bubble does burst, and all manner of empty wallets and broken hearts follow, remember that everyone, including Frank Gehry, knew it was coming. But it is not his problem. Perhaps the architect can afford such insouciance. The city, the culture and the condo owners likely can't.


In the Christian blogosphere, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson's discovery that evangelical Christians vote, even for conservative causes, occasioned much mirth, which is a step up from the usual reaction to his column. A long time ago, when Simpson was rather more vibrant, in some circles he was called the Clerk of the Privy Council, providing as he did a regular update on what respectable people in official Ottawa were thinking. Readers desirous of adopting conventional thinking without thinking for themselves could find in Simpson's writing all the agreed upon conventions. So it was instructive that he began his column on evangelical Christians with this frank admission: "We in what is called the 'mainstream' media tend to be secularists who either consider religion to be a private matter or have no religious faith at all. We tend therefore to minimize or miss the importance of religion in politics." Well, yes. That convention has been established for some time now, but it is useful to have it confirmed by the Clerk, recording the minutes as it were. So if the Globe and Mail and other outlets of the mainstream media miss the importance of religion, what is an unconventional Canadian who desires original thinking to do? Perhaps start a new magazine, or support one. Sounds like it's time for Convivium.

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