Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Reform Party, Then and Now

I was six months shy of being able to vote in the Canadian federal election of October 1993. Nevertheless, I followed the election closely having had an interest in politics for as long as I can remember. The results did not please me. The Liberal Party, for which I have never had anything but the deepest loathing received a large majority of 177 seats. The party that came in second and thus, ironically, became Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, was the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party. The socialist New Democrats were reduced to 9 seats but it was difficult to rejoice over this when the Conservatives had been reduced to 2 seats.

Although I was not old enough to vote for them I had always thought of the Conservatives as my party. Undoubtedly part of the reason for this was that my parents had supported them in 1984 and 1988. I had deeper reasons than this, however. The Conservatives were the party of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald and they were the party of John G. Diefenbaker. Then as now, I thought of Diefenbaker as the statesman who embodied all the political principles I believed in. He was a Canadian nationalist, who believed in a united Canada whose place was with the United States and the free world in the fight against Communism but not at the expense of her own identity and sovereignty, a Tory who supported our parliamentary tradition, our monarchy, and our ties to the rest of the British family of nations in the Commonwealth, and a Western, rural populist who hated the way the companies and politicians of the big Ontario and Quebec metropolises tended to think they could walk all over the other provinces and the rural communities of Canada.

Yet, despite my instinctual Toryism, when the next general election came in 1997, it was the Reform Party for which I voted and in which I had actually taken out a membership. The Reform Party had been the other big winner in 1993, after the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, having won 52 seats, just two short of tying with the Bloc. This was the part of the outcome of the 1993 election with which I was most satisfied. This was not an indication of a change in my political principles, although the title of the Reform Party would suggest a spirit of impatience for change that is the very antithesis of conservatism. It was due, rather, to the conviction that on a number of important issues the Conservative Party was no longer interested in standing for conservative principles and presenting Canadians with a real alternative to the positions of the Liberal and NDP parties. The Reform Party, on the other hand, seemed to be that alternative.

It had been founded in 1987 at a conference here in Winnipeg, but the movement that gave birth to it had been years in the making. The arrogance of the Trudeau Liberals towards Western Canada (not just to the Alberta oil industry) had generated a lot of resentment towards Ottawa in the West. The Mulroney Conservatives had not helped things when, in their efforts to solve the constitutional crisis that Trudeau had dumped in their laps, they gave every appearance of wishing to appease Quebec at the expense of the Western provinces. The Reform Party was founded as a vehicle to take to Ottawa the message that the West had had enough. This was a message that I firmly believed Ottawa needed to hear and was long overdue to receive.

What I did not realize at the time was that the grievances that had given birth to the movement that gave Western populism its own party had also transformed Western populism into something that was quite different from the Western populism I admired in Diefenbaker. In Diefenbaker, as you can read on almost every page of his three volume memoirs One Canada or his These Things We Treasure(the best short expression of traditional Canadian Toryism out there) his refusal to stand by and allow the urban elites of Ontario, Quebec, and Ottawa to trample over the rest of the country, especially the rural, West where he had grown up, was inseparably joined to a deep Tory love and reverence for the traditions and institutions of his country, Canada. In the Reform Party, however, Western populism was frequently wed to a thinly veiled, if veiled at all, contempt for Canada, her history, traditions, and institutions, and a desire to replace these with ones more resembling those of our republican neighbours to the south. Had I fully realized this twenty years ago, I would not have touched the Reform Party with a ten-foot pole.

I did not realize it at the time, however, and the Reform Party, under the leadership of Preston Manning, an evangelical Christian, was taking all sorts of stands that I agreed with. It was opposed to abortion, to easy divorce, to same-sex marriage (although this was barely on the radar twenty years ago) and to the basic replacement of what had been the social and moral norms throughout most of Canadian history with the values of Hollywood. It was opposed to the approach to criminal sentencing that elevates fairness to the perpetrator of a crime over justice to his victim. It opposed the long-gun registry which was an expensive and obnoxious way of appeasing feminists by harassing farmers. It rejected the absurd idea that robbing Peter to pay Paul through high taxes and ever-expanding social programs was a form of Christian charity, compassion and generosity rather than the bribing of people with their own money. It wanted lower taxes, more fiscal responsibility on the part of government, and a friendlier general atmosphere towards business and job creation.

This is what drew me to the Reform Party and I am still fundamentally in agreement with all of this today. Liberals, NDP socialists, and left-of-centre Conservatives, have all suggested that these ideas were products of the American Right, alien to traditional Canadian conservatism and imported by the Reform Party. Unfortunately, many within the Reform Party shared this idea and joined it with their obnoxious anti-Canadian, anti-patriotism. The idea is pure nonsense. There is a world of difference between the Disraelian social safety net traditionally supported by the Conservative Party in Canada and the bloated welfare state that is, ironically, itself largely an American import built up by the Canadian government following the lead of the American Democrats in the 1930s and 1960s. The idea that the Reform Party’s positions on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and other social and moral issues were foreign to traditional Canadian conservatism is even more worthy of ridicule. Until very recently support for these positions could be found even in the centre (Liberal) and left (NDP) parties.

I let my membership in the Reform Party, or the Canadian Alliance as it had become, lapse in 2003 prior to the merger that created the current Conservative Party. The merger could have blended the best of both parties, such as the old Conservative Party’s nationalism and support for our traditions and institutions with the Reform Party’s right-wing economic and social views. I suspected it would be far more likely to blend the worst of both parties, i.e., the Conservative Party’s willingness to capitulate to the centre and the left on economic and social issues and the Reform Party’s disgusting anti-patriotism.

Perhaps that says more about my tendency towards cynicism than anything else but I find myself reflecting on all of this after reading Warren Kinsella’s column in yesterday’s Sun entitled “Reform fades into history”. (1) Kinsella’s argument was that today, twenty years after the Reform Party became a force to be reckoned with in Canadian national politics, it is Ottawa that has changed the Reformers and not the other way around. Kinsella pointed to several old Reform Party positions on which their heirs in the current Conservative Party appear to have flip-flopped. I will only comment on two of them.

The first thing Kinsella mentions is that the Reformers “arrived opposing gay rights” and today “are indifferent to, or supportive of, gay rights.” Kinsella’s choice of words does not quite do justice to the change he is referring to. The phrase “gay rights” could suggest the idea that homosexuals have the same legal protection of their lives and property and the same rights to legal counsel, a trial before a jury of their peers, etc. as heterosexuals. The Reform Party was never opposed to this, however. It could also mean something like the right to engage in consensual sexual intercourse with another adult member of one’s own sex in privacy behind closed doors. This too, doesn’t quite fit the discussion. Homosexuality had already been decriminalized by the time the Reform Party was founded and while one or two Reformers might have had the idea that it ought to be recriminalized this was never part of the party’s policy and platform. What the Reform Party did oppose, and presumably this is what Kinsella meant by “gay rights”, was the addition of “sexual orientation” to the prohibited bases of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and changing the legal definition of marriage so that a man could “marry” a man, and a woman could “marry” a woman.

Twenty years ago, when the governing Liberal Party declared its support for adding sexual orientation to the CHRA and redefining marriage it assured us that the rights of other Canadians, particularly religious Canadians, would not be adversely affected because these rights were already recognized in Canadian law. These assurances were pure boloney. The courts, both the kangaroo “human rights” tribunals and the real courts, have taken the position that to protect homosexuals against discrimination Christians must either do things that violate the ancient teachings of their religion or face heavy fines and/or the loss of their businesses and livelihood. The Reform Party saw this coming twenty years ago. The fact that their successors seem to have backed down on the matter is not to their credit.

A few paragraphs into his column, Kinsella referred to the “Blue Book”, i.e., the Reform Party’s official policy book, and says that it “declared the Reformers opposed anything that would ‘alter the ethnic makeup of Canada.’” This, Kinsella told us, means that they “wanted to keep Canada as white as possible. It was indisputably racist.”

Indisputably? Not exactly. What the Blue Book actually declared the Reform Party to be opposed to was “any immigration based on race or creed or designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada”. One does not have to dislike people of other races or even just the people of any particular race to see that massive, large scale, and quick demographic change is seldom if ever good for a country. Furthermore, immigration policy that is purposefully designed to bring about such change is indicative of a government that holds its own people in utter contempt.

The Liberal Party brought in just such an immigration policy early in the premiership of Pierre Trudeau. No subsequent government has reversed that policy – Mulroney’s Conservatives, if anything, made it worse – in part because the Liberals accused anybody who opposed the policy of being a bigot. They particularly liked to accuse rural Canadians and Western Canadians of being ignorant, uneducated, racists which helped fan the flames of resentment in the West against the arrogance of the Liberal Party and their support base in Ontario and Quebec. This, as we have seen, led to the creation of the Reform Party and the Reformers were right to declare their opposition to a policy that treated Canadians with such disrespect.

Kinsella claimed that this policy attracted “Nazi” support to the Reform Party and then gave himself a big verbal pat on the back for the help he gave Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper in purging the party of these. Whatever amount of truth there may be to this story, and, no matter how many books on the subject he may write, I am not inclined to put any stock in Warren Kinsella’s accusations that so-and-so is a Nazi, he is certainly right that the current Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has jettisoned the Reform Party’s original position on immigration and adopted one virtually indistinguishable from that of the Liberal Party and NDP.

Judge for yourself, but I think that Kinsella has pretty much proven my cynical assessment, ten years ago, of what the outcome of the merger would be, to be justified.

(1) http://www.torontosun.com/2014/04/21/reform-fades-into-history

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Harrowing Experience


The Nicene Creed was drawn up at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century AD in response to various heresies that had been troubling the church. It has since served as the basic statement of orthodox Christian doctrine as well as the confession that is liturgically recited during the service of the Eucharist. The origins of the Apostles’ Creed are a bit more obscure, but it too is an ancient confession of Christian faith, from the days before schism divided the church and it has become the traditional confession for use in baptism. Thus these two creeds have for most of Christian history been connected with the two sacraments ordained as such by the Lord Himself. They have a similar structure and wording, and for the most part the differences consist of places where the Nicene Creed goes into more detail about what is stated more succinctly in the Apostles’ Creed. There are a couple of places, however, where the Apostles’ Creed contains something that is not present in the Nicene. The example that is of particular interest to us today, on Holy Saturday, is the phrase that occurs between “Was crucified, dead, and buried” and “The third day He rose again from the dead”, between Good Friday and Easter so to speak. That phrase, as rendered in the Book of Common Prayer, is “He descended into hell”.

More recent English renditions of the Apostles’ Creed usually substitute a phrase like “to the dead” for “into hell.” This might please squeamish people who don’t like talk about hell, but it makes this phrase redundant as it no longer expresses anything that was not already covered by the phrase immediately preceding it. Worse, it removes from the creed explicit reference to a doctrine hinted at by Scripture, required by sound theology, taught by the fathers of the church, medieval theologians, and the Reformers, traditionally part of the liturgy for Holy Saturday of both the Western and the Eastern churches, affirmed in the third of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church and which is a familiar image in medieval Western and Byzantine religious art. The traditional English name for this doctrine is the “harrowing of hell”.

The name of this doctrine requires some clarifying explanation otherwise it could be very misleading. Today the word harrow refers to a piece of farming equipment that is hitched to a tractor and pulled over a field to smooth out the soil. Where you would use a hoe and a rake on a small garden plot you use a harrow on a large field. As a verb to harrow now refers to the act of using this implement. This is not what “harrow” means in the harrowing of hell, however. The orthodox doctrine is not that Jesus went down to the underworld and prepared it to grow flowers and vegetables. In the older form of English that was used when this doctrine was given its name, to harrow meant to ravage, plunder, despoil, and lay waste. It described the actions of an invading army.

The word hell also needs to be explained. I do not mean that it needs to be explained away, as much modern theology tries to do. I mean that because Christian theology uses the word hell to describe two overlapping, but nonetheless quite distinct concepts pertaining to the afterlife, we need to be clear as to which one is meant. The first of these concepts is that of the place of punishment for the unredeemed wicked after death and the Last Judgment. Putting aside the question of whether the punishment referred to is everlasting conscious torment or annihilation as irrelevant to this discussion, this is the place Jesus refers to as Gehenna and which is described as a lake of fire burning with brimstone by St John in the Apocalypse. This is not what the creed is referring to when it says that Jesus “descended into hell”.

The other concept described by the word hell, and the one which the word’s etymology suggests, is that of a dark underworld, where the spirits of the dead go, regardless of their righteousness or wickedness. This is what the Hebrew word sheol that is used in the Old Testament referred to. It is what the Greek word hades refers to. The Greeks named the underworld after the deity they believed ruled it, Hades, whom the Romans called Pluto, and who won the underworld when he and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon overthrew the Titans and divided the universe between themselves. The Scandinavians and Germans had a similar concept of the land of the dead, and they too named it after the deity to whom they ascribed its rule. This was Hel, daughter of Loki. The English word hell is derived from the Norse word and just as the writers of the New Testament adapted the word hades as a Greek equivalent of sheol, so English Christians adapted the word hell. This is the hell to which Jesus descended between the cross and the Resurrection.

It is important that we be clear on this. Christ’s descent into hell was not, as some have mistakenly taught, for the purpose of submitting Himself to the torments of the damned. Christ did indeed suffer for our sins, the innocent for the guilty, but this was His work on the cross which He finished with His dying breath. His entrance into hell was that of a victorious conqueror ransacking a defeated foe and setting its captives free.

The way the doctrine was traditionally taught, the souls of the Old Testament saints and the souls of the damned alike went to hell (sheol/hades) where the souls of the saints awaited the coming of their Redeemer. Jesus, after defeating sin and death on the cross by taking the former upon Himself and embracing the later, descended into hell as a victor, breaking the gates into pieces and smashing the infernal stronghold, where he announced to the saints that the long awaited day of their release had come and brought them up out of hell, leaving only the devil and the damned behind. In art this is typically depicted in one of a number of ways, such as Jesus leading a procession of the redeemed out of the hellmouth, meeting Adam and Eve and other recognizable Old Testament saints in limbo, or standing with the gates of hell broken beneath His feet. (1)

This doctrine is not spelled out for us as such in the New Testament, although it is inferred in several passages, most notably that which the Book of Common Prayer assigns as the epistle reading for Holy Saturday, 1 Peter 3:17-22. This lack of explicit statement has led some modern Protestants to deny the doctrine, which denial, had the sixteenth century Reformers been able to foresee as the outcome of their teaching of Sola Scriptura, would undoubtedly have caused Martin Luther to throw an inkpot and curse profusely and John Calvin to burn someone at the stake. Sound Christology is incomplete without this doctrine.

The picture painted for us in the Scriptures of Christ’s activity beginning with His Incarnation in His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost and culminating in His Ascension into heaven and sitting on the right hand of the Father is of a journey that takes Him from the highest place to the lowest, from the zenith to the nadir, and then back again. When Christ re-enters the highest place, the glory in heaven that He shared with His Father from eternity past He is crowned with even greater glory for having made the journey. The first part of the journey, the downward path is called His Humiliation. The second part of the journey, the upward path back to Heaven, is called His Exaltation. Both are explicitly taught and emphasized throughout the New Testament and this picture would not be complete had the journey not taken Him to the lowest place, possible, i.e., hell. Consider the words of St. Paul in the ninth verse of the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians. “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth.”

Paradoxically, the descent into hell has historically and traditionally, in the teachings of the church fathers, the medieval scholastics, the eastern and western churches, and the most orthodox of Protestant theologians, not been regarded as the final aspect of Christ’s Humiliation but as the first stage in His Exaltation. This does not negate what we just said about the descent being necessary to complete the picture of a journey from the highest place to the lowest and back again. The inclusion of the descent in the Exaltation, the upward part of the journey, rather than the Humiliation, the downward part of the journey to which it would seem more logical to place it, is due to the nature of Christ’s entrance into hell. Again, He did not enter hell in defeat to suffer the torments of the damned, but in victory, to break the stronghold of the enemies of God and man – sin, death, and the devil – which He had defeated on the cross, and to rescue from their clutches those of His own who had preceded Him there.

The descent into hell is needed not only to round off the picture of Christ’s downward and upward journeys but to present His saving work in its fullest, most heroic, aspect. When we speak of what Christ did for us in His sacrifice on the cross we speak of Him paying our debt of sin or of His bearing the judgement for our sins as our substitute. All of this is perfectly sound theology but the language of banks and courts cannot do aesthetic justice to Christ’s saving mission. For that we need the old doctrine of the harrowing of hell.

We should not be so quick to “update” the Creed to get rid of words and concepts that offend our modern sensibilities. They were put there for a reason and if, in this case, they are inferred from Scriptural references to Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison or His statement that He would be in “the belly of the earth” for as long as Jonah was in the belly of the whale, they are good inferences. Their absence would leave a gaping hole in both Christian theology and Christian art and we would be the poorer for it.

(1) One of the most famous examples is the fourteenth century fresco by Andrea da Firenze on the north wall of the Spanish chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In this painting, Jesus is standing on the broken gate of hell, which has fallen on a devil and trapped him, while He reaches out His hands to an old man, presumably Adam, at the head of a crowd of haloes saints, while hiding in a cave in he corner the demons glare at Him.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making “Saints”

The word saint means “holy one”. It can refer, as it frequently does in the Holy Scriptures, to all of God’s people. The word “holy” denotes the state of being dedicated and set aside for the use of God. In the Old Testament, God called Israel out from among the nations and consecrated her to Himself, and the covenant He made with her contained both moral commandments, which forbade behaviour that was wrong and demanded behaviour that was right, and ceremonial commandments, the purpose of which was to separate her as a people God had set apart as His own. Old Testament saints, therefore, were Israelites, keeping in mind, of course, St. Paul’s remarks that “he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Rom. 2:28-29). New Testament saints are all those, Jew or Gentile, who have been baptized into the church, the body of Christ, in which the wall of regulations separating Jew from Gentile has been torn down. St. Paul’s distinction between outward and inward circumcision, of course, can be applied to baptism as well, and the true New Testament saint is the person who believe in Jesus internally, in the heart. It is in this New Testament sense of the term that the Apostle’s Creed speaks of the “communion of the saints”, i.e., the mystic union and fellowship of all believers, here and in Heaven.

There are other ways in which people can be specially dedicated and set apart for and by God than by merely belonging to His people or His church. This is why from the earliest days the church has used the word saint to honour those that she has regarded as being particularly holy. In early centuries, local churches would honour their martyrs, those who had been persecuted and killed for their faith, as saints. Later, the catholic or universal church decided that the recognition and honouring of saints should be standardized throughout Christendom. This required that a canon, or list, of recognized saints be drawn up, which in turn required that the church define what it meant to be a saint in this sense of the term and that criteria be stated by which saints can be identified.

A consequence of this, as you may imagine, was that the concept of the saint within Christendom developed somewhat differently among the churchgoing populace than it did among the theologians and ecclesiastical authorities. You might call the one the popular concept of the saint, and the other the official concept of the saint.

The writers of literature have drawn upon both concepts for inspiration. In Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess presents a fictionalized version of the history of the twentieth century as told from the perspective of Kenneth Toomey, a successful gay novelist who is reviewing his life in anticipation of writing his memoirs. He is doing so in part at the request of the Roman Catholic Church who have asked for his assistance in the canonization of the last pope, who had been a close friend of his and whose brother had married his sister. The Church approaches Toomey, because he had been the only witness of certain miracles that had been performed through the late pope and proper certification of miracles is part of the canonization process.

That miracles are performed through saints is common to both the official and popular understandings of the term, and in Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford trilogy, Robertson Davies introduces us to Dunstan Ramsay, a scholar who has made popular folklore regarding saints the object of his life’s studies. The novel is narrated by Ramsay, who, like Burgess’s Toomey, is telling the story of his own life, and in the telling Ramsay explains what lies at the bottom of his unusual line of expertise. He had experienced a miracle performed through a woman who had been driven out of her wits in an unfortunate incident in which he had been an unwilling participant as a small boy and over which he felt terrible guilt. He had become convinced that she was a saint, although few others were willing to share that conviction.

George Grant, the Canadian philosopher, reminds me a bit of the fictional Dunstan Ramsay in this respect. He was convinced that his favourite twentieth century thinker, Simone Weil, was a saint. His biographer, William Christian, quotes him as saying that Weil was “both a saint and a philosopher…She was a saint in the sense that she gave herself away to the divine charity.” (1) Like Mary Dempster, the character that Ramsay believed to be a living saint, Weil was an unusual candidate for sainthood, albeit for different reasons. Neither the fictional character nor the living philosopher-mystic would have met the church’s official requirements for canonization.

Had she been born a couple of thousand years earlier, Weil might have qualified as an Old Testament saint, for she was born of Hebrew stock to the wife of a Jewish doctor in 1909. This is an honour she would have rejected for herself, however, for she disliked the Old Testament and regarded Judaism as a barbaric religion. Needless to say, when she later embraced the Christian faith in her twenties, her theology was something less than orthodox. The great litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, had been drawn up by the church against the early heretics who claimed, among other things, that the God of the Old Testament could not be the same God that Jesus Christ declared to be His Father. Weil expressed admiration for heretical groups like the early Gnostics and especially the later Cathari who rejected most or all of the Old Testament. This, and her persistent refusal to receive baptism despite the pleas of her friend and spiritual advisor Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin, her letters to whom explaining this refusal were later published under the title Waiting For God, (2) would surely raise a few eyebrows among any ecclesiastical authorities asked to consider her for canonization.

Having said that, remember what I said earlier about how St. Paul’s distinction between inward and outward circumcision applies to baptism too. While under ordinary circumstances the persistent refusal to receive baptism would be a sign of unbelief, Weil’s reasons for so refusing were anything but ordinary. If she cannot be so easily written out of the “communion of the saints” in the creedal sense of the term, neither should her heterodoxy be regarded as disbarring her from the company of the particularly marked, holy ones to which Grant and several others believed she belonged. The ability to pass a theological exam is hardly the first thing that is looked for in considering a person for canonization. Indeed, Weil’s heterodox view of the Old Testament and admiration for the Cathari is itself an example, albeit a clearly misguided one, of the very characteristic that was perceived as being most saintly about her.

Weil was a lifelong sympathizer with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, the voiceless and the downtrodden. This is a trait which can be very admirable but which can also be very easily taken to an ugly excess or diverted down unworthy channels. It is this trait that led Weil to condemn the religion of the Old Testament as condoning the abuse of power and to sympathize with the Cathari as the victims of power abuse. As a young teacher she was led by her desire to take up the cause of the downtrodden into political activism of various sorts, most of which were highly misguided at best. In this, she was hardly an atypical intellectual. What set her apart was her willingness to pay the price of her idealism personally. Her death from consumption in 1943, for example, seems to have been at least partly due to a refusal to eat enough to keep up her strength out of solidarity with those starving in Nazi-occupied France.

Indeed, Weil seemed driven by an insatiable desire to share in the sufferings of others. She herself tied this desire to her Christian faith. After her early radicalism she had come to a mystic version of Christian faith, grounded in her personal experiences with God, such as when she felt compelled to pray in a Catholic basilica in Assisi or when she felt “Christ himself came down and took possession of me” while reading a poem by seventeenth century metaphysical poet and Anglican divine George Herbert. In a fascinating comment in one of her letters to Fr. Perrin she remarked that “every time that I think about Christ’s crucifixion, I commit the sin of envy”.

A remark like this can really only be explained in one of two ways. Either she was out of her mind, or God Himself had marked her out for Himself and placed within her this holy, almost superhuman, desire to take up the cross.

If it is the latter, then what better word could there possibly be to describe such a person than the word saint?


(1) William Christian, George Grant: A Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 228
(2) Most of the books attributed to Weil are compilations of her writings put together after her death. In the case of Waiting For God it is letters to a priest that are compiled into a book, in the case of Gravity and Grace it is excerpts from the notebooks she had written while staying at the farm of Gustave Thibon early in the war and which she had left in his possession. The notebooks have more recently been published in an unabridged format. Of her best known writings it is The Need For Roots which actually reads like it was composed as a monograph for publication. This is because it was originally written as a report for the French Resistance.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Here in Winnipeg the Fat Lady Sings Well

It was sixteen years ago that I first attended a production of the Manitoba Opera at the Centennial Concert Hall here in Winnipeg. The Manitoba Opera puts on two operas per season, one in the fall and one in the spring, with three shows per opera. The spring production in the 1997/1998 season was of Giocomo Puccini’s La Bohème. I purchased a ticket to the first of the three performances and was so captivated that I went back for the other two performances as well. I have since become a subscriber to the Manitoba Opera and last night once again saw a magnificent production of the opera that had first drawn me in almost two decades ago.

La Bohème has lost none of its power to charm, although exactly where the appeal in this opera lies is something that I cannot quite put my finger on. Could it be the characters?

I don’t think so. The poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello are both quite realistic portrayals of modern artistic types, i.e., people far too full of themselves to be of any interest to anyone else. The philosopher and musician whose names elude me at the moment are for the most part forgettable. Marcello’s on-again, off-again, girlfriend Musetta, a brazenly selfish and worldly, social climbing, prima donna is more amusing than appealing, at least until her character shows an unexpected depth in the fourth and final act. The only consistently appealing character is Mimi, the Juliet to Rodolfo’s Romeo.

If it is not the characters, what about the plot?

This doesn’t seem to be the answer either. The plot is not particularly outstanding. I would say it is nothing to write home about but as I intend to write about it for the rest of this paragraph perhaps a different phrasing is called for. Just a head’s up, if you don’t care to have the ending of an opera that was first performed in 1896 revealed, you had better skip ahead. In the first act, Mimi comes by to borrow a light for her candle from Rodolfo who has lagged behind while the others have gone off to spend an unexpected windfall at an expensive café rather than use it to pay their rent. They fall in love at first sight and, in the second act, join the others at the café. There Musetta comes in, on the arm of a rich, old man that she dumped Marcello over, makes a big scene in which she reunited with Marcello, and they all take off leaving the poor old sucker to pay the bill. In the third act Mimi comes to Marcello to complain that Rodolfo has been acting jealous and accusing her of flirting with every man who comes along. It turns out that Rodolfo has recognized that Mimi is dying of galloping consumption and, in a display of true artistic temperament has managed to make it all about himself by covering up his fears with his inappropriate, boorish, behaviour. In the final act, Musetta finds Mimi and brings her back to Rodolfo, just before she succumbs to the tuberculosis and closes the opera with her death.

In the words of that most distinguished of music and theatre critics, Bugs Bunny, what did you expect, a happy ending?

If the characters and plot are weak, the same cannot be said of Puccini’s musical score. The music is both beautiful and enchanting. For those who are only familiar with opera music through the recordings of singers like Pavarotti, some of it will be easily recognizable. Rodolfo was Pavarotti’s first major role and while later in his career, his signature aria was “Nessun Dorma” from Turnandot (also by Puccini and the Manitoba Opera’s spring selection for next season), “Che gelida manina”, the aria in which Rodolfo introduces himself to Mimi, was also an indispensable part of his repertoire.

Excellent as Puccini’s musical score is, however, is it sufficient in itself to explain the appeal of the opera despite the weakness of story and characters? If it were Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte we were discussing, in which a breathtakingly beautiful score is able to transform one of the most vapid stories that ever wasted ink into a great work of art there would be no question, but then Mozart’s music was on a level few other composers could ever dream of approaching.

Perhaps the only explanation is to say that it is the magic of opera. The Greeks, Nietzsche told us in his first and best book, by imposing the Apollonian order of dialogue and plot upon the chthonic, Dionysian, music of the Greek chorus had created a new art form, tragedy, which was able to speak order into chaos and lift men out the meaninglessness of their lives. Tragedy had been lost, Nietzsche claimed, due to the New Tragedy of Euripides, the Comedy of Aeschylus, and the philosophy of Socrates, but had been reborn in his own day in the operas of Richard Wagner. Granted, Wagnerian opera is radically different from those of Puccini or, for that matter, of virtually any other composer, and Nietzsche repudiated his own thesis when Wagner composed Parsifal based upon Christian legend rather than Nordic myth, but I think there is something to be said for the idea that in opera the combination of drama and music produces something that is greater than its components. There are other genres in which the two are combined but none of these has ever been able to do what opera does. In words from a very popular work in one of those other genres, words that were clearly intended to satirize opera but which nevertheless manage to convey a sense of the true uniqueness of opera, “you’d never get away with all this in a play, but if its loudly sung and in a foreign tongue it’s just the sort of score the audiences adore, in fact the perfect opera.” (1)

Whatever the case, I have renewed my subscription for next season. I strongly considered not bothering with it when I saw, to my disgust, that the fall production of Beethoven’s Fidelio was being deliberately timed to coincide with the opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. I decided however that it would be silly to punish myself for the local opera company’s decision to make some banal, left-wing, political statement, especially when the composer’s politics were no better.

People fortunate enough to live in a community that has a local opera company, after all, ought to support it. A small company like Manitoba Opera may not be able to put on productions on the same scale as a large company like the Met in New York City but it is unfair to expect them to be able to do so. An opera is different when experienced in live production than when listened to on the radio or in recording. Operas are written to be performed live and there is something to be said for that experience, even when conducted on a smaller scale. To understand and appreciate this distinction is part of the cultivated taste which the fine arts are supposed to instil in people and so in a sense to lack this understanding and appreciation is to miss the whole point altogether.

In the case of Manitoba Opera, our local company puts on excellent productions and last night’s was no exception. I look forward to seeing what they will do with Beethoven’s only opera in the fall, even if I have to hold my nose against the stench of association with the CMHR the whole time.

(1) “Prima Donna” from The Phantom of the Opera, (1986), music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Illiberality of Liberalism

In Taran Wanderer, the fourth of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a series of fantasy novels for young readers that draws inspiration from Welsh mythology, the hero of the series, Taran, a foundling raised by the wizard Dallben, goes on a quest in search of his parentage. During this quest, he encounters Lord Goryon and Lord Gast, liegemen of King Smoit, his old acquaintance from The Black Cauldron . Lord Goryon, who describes himself as “Goryon the Valorous”, is an arrogant bully whose men pick fights with those weaker than themselves and liberate them of their belongings. Lord Gast, who refers to himself as “Gast the Generous”, invites Taran and his friends to a feast, at which he offers them meager scraps off of his own overloaded plate, all the time praising his own munificence. These lords, each of which identified himself the most with the virtue that was least like his actual character, bring to mind the words of Robert Burns:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
.

The political ideology of liberalism also identifies itself with a virtue. Liberality is one of the classical virtues. It means to be generous towards others in thought and deed, both in the sense of giving and sharing out of one’s material wealth and in the sense of being slow to think ill and quick to think well. Broadmindedness or tolerance, the willingness to let others be, is the very sine qua non of liberality.

Is it, however, a distinguishing trait of liberalism?

Some have suggested that liberalism errs by being generous to a fault, by taking its broadmindedness too far. Towards the end of his life, for example, American poet Robert Frost famously defined a liberal as “a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”. There is a great deal of truth in this, of course, and example after example could be pointed to of how liberals have insisted upon taking the side of various “others” against their own communities and countries even to the point where it adversely affects the interests of the latter.

There are also, however, countless examples of how liberalism can be anything but tolerant, broadminded and, well, liberal. As William F. Buckley Jr. quipped decades ago “Liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, but it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.”

If we look at the roots of political liberalism this should not come as a great surprise to us. The political party that renamed itself Liberal in the nineteenth century was the Whig Party, organized in the seventeenth century by people that were anything but liberal in the sense of being tolerant and broadminded. The Puritans were Protestant extremists who were unsatisfied with the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement and who wished to cleanse the Church of England of anything that smacked of popery to them. They wanted the laws against recusancy to be strictly and severely enforced against Roman Catholics. They went to war against King Charles I out of a paranoid belief that his High Anglican views meant that he was a closet Roman Catholic, deposed him, and had him beheaded. In the interregnum, during which they governed England, they cancelled Christmas and Easter, closed the theatres and banned public amusements on Sundays, stripped the churches of the ornaments and organ music that brought the beauty of high art into the lives of common people, and waged war against Roman Catholics. After the Restoration, these men became the founders and organizers of the Whigs, who drove James II from his throne. The track record, of the party that renamed itself Liberal, was a rather illiberal one.

The liberals of today, both small and big l, are, of course, worlds’ removed from the Puritans in some respects, the most obvious being that they are highly secular. Nevertheless, the spirit of social and moral reform that drove the Puritans still lives on in liberalism today although its targets and objectives have changed. Today’s liberals no longer crusade against surplices, pictures of the saints, and the sign of the cross as corrupting influences that will lead young Protestants astray into the arms of the Scarlet Woman of Babylon although they might object to these things as being offensive to religious minorities. They have found new reforms to champion, such as attempts to eliminate child poverty by reducing the size of sugared soda containers or to save us all from second-degree smoke inhalation by preventing the owners of restaurants and other businesses from allowing tobacco smoking on their own property. They may no longer base their sense of superiority on the belief that they have a better understanding of the Scriptures than the fathers and doctors of the church but they now base it upon the idea that they have been enlightened by reason and science.

The biggest moral crusade of today’s liberals is their campaign against bigotry. In this one might expect liberalism to actually live up to its name. After all, bigotry, which is a negative opinion of those who differ from you that one persists in holding in the face of the evidence, is pretty much the exact opposite of being broadminded, generous, and tolerant. It is ironic, therefore, that it is in liberalism’s crusade against bigotry that its own illiberalism, its own bigotry, is most prominently on display. In its criticism of the history and traditions of Western societies and civilization, liberalism is quick to think the worst of those who have gone before us and the institutions they have bequeathed us, which in itself is a most illiberal attitude. Any metacritical response to this is usually also condemned as being motivated by nothing more than bigotry.

Last week, Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, stepped down as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, a position to which he had been newly appointed in March. Eich was one of the founders of the corporation, and of its parent the Mozilla Foundation, which was founded to continue a project that Eich had helped start while working for Netscape before the company was bought out and its software discontinued. In other words, he was clearly qualified for the job and his appointment as CEO made perfect sense.

His resignation, so soon after taking the job, occurred in the wake of a negative publicity campaign against him and his company after it was revealed that in 2008 Eich had made a donation to California’s Proposition 8, an effort to amend California’s state constitution to define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.

This is just one of several examples, in recent months, of heavy handed attempts to punish dissent from the liberal position regarding same-sex marriage. It was only last December, for example, that Phil Robertson, was suspended by the television company A&E from the apparently popular show Duck Dynasty over his views on homosexuality as expressed in an interview with GQ magazine. The station lifted the suspension after it received a backlash of negative comments but it too had clearly been placed under a similar kind of pressure to that which has been placed on Mozilla.

These incidents are clearly intended to convey a message – that liberalism has won the war for what it calls “marriage equality” and that far from being magnanimous in victory it intends to impose a Carthaginian peace upon its foes. Dissent from the idea that a man has just as much of a right to marry a man as he does to marry a woman and that a woman has just as much of a right to marry a woman as she does to marry a man, or even be shown to have dissented from this idea at some point in the past, and an intimidation campaign may be waged against your employer with the purpose of denying you your livelihood.

Liberals try to get around the obvious illiberality of this sort of behaviour by saying that Eich and Robertson are bigots and that bigotry must not be tolerated. If the views of Eich and Robertson are bigoted, however, that means that the orthodox teachings of the Abrahamic faiths constitute bigotry.

Liberalism would seem to be defining a bigot as anyone who disagrees with a liberal view even if that view is one that liberalism only adopted itself yesterday. If, however, bigotry is not to be tolerated, and everyone who disagrees with liberalism is a bigot, then it follows that disagreement with liberalism is not to be tolerated. Yet liberalism calls itself by the name of the virtue of generosity and tolerance. It is an odd kind of tolerance indeed, which declares the only exception to the rule of tolerance, to be everything except itself.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Péladeau Saves Canada!


Someone check the almanac to see if that proverbially rare celestial occurrence, the blue moon, is scheduled to appear this month. For the first time in my recollection I find myself pleased that the Grits have scored an electoral victory. Don’t get me wrong, this pleasure does not arise out of a newfound sense of appreciation for the merits and virtues of the Liberal Party. It comes rather from relief over the fact that it means that the country will be spared, at least for the immediate future, another round of the Quebec separatism crisis.

This past Monday the province of Quebec held an early provincial election. A little over a year and a half ago, the Liberals had lost control of the province in the last election. The separatist Parti Québécois had won a minority government and the decision to take the province back to the polls early was a bid to convert that minority government into a majority after they failed to gain support for their budget from the opposition parties. In a sense, that is what happened except that the majority government was given to Philippe Couillard’s Liberals instead of to the PQ of Pauline Marois. The Grits won seventy seats in the Quebec assembly, seven more than is needed to form a majority, and well over double the thirty that were returned to the PQ, whose leader lost her own seat in the constituency of Charlevoix–Côte-de-Beaupré and stepped down as leader of her party even while conceding the election to Couillard. This is the lowest number of seats the separatist party has received since the 1980s.

What caused this drastic overturn of the fortunes of the Parti Québécois?

The answer is, in a single word, separatism.

Shortly after the election was called, media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau announced that he would run as a candidate for the Parti Québécois. He further declared that it was the issue of separatism that was drawing him into the race and he wanted “to make Quebec a country”. This put party leader Marois, who presumably would have preferred to have continued to downplay her party’s contentious raison d’être, into something of a bind. Forced to run a campaign with the separatism issue front and centre, the PQ lost and lost big.

Péladeau’s true motivations are known only to himself and God. He does not have an established history as a separatist. Apart from this one issue his views are not notably in line with those of his party. He is said to have blamed his business troubles of a few years back on English Canada and particularly the Royal Bank which could explain a conversion to the sovereignist cause. Yet surely he could not have been unaware that if there is one thing that English and French Canadians, the people of Quebec and the rest of Canada, agree upon more than anything else is that we are all sick to death of politicians raising the issue of the separation of Quebec.

The spectre of Quebec separatism loomed large over the land when I was growing up. It was a movement that was born in the 1960s while Quebec was undergoing the sweeping changes that are often called the “Quiet Revolution.” The ancien régime, the old Catholic order that had been the support base of the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis, largely disappeared and was replaced by a new order of moral permissiveness, secularism, and socialism. Out of the New Quebec that replaced the Old, arose both federalists and separatists. The federalists were conscripted by the national Liberal Party, which was looking to create a new, multicultural, Canada that rejected the traditions of both English and French Canada. The separatist movement divided into a militant and a moderate wing. The militant wing formed the terrorist organization the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) whereas the relatively moderate wing organized what eventually became the Parti Québécois.

It was the terrorist wing of the separatist movement that first attracted the attention of the nation. Throughout the 1960s, the FLQ waged a campaign of bombing, kidnapping and murder that culminated in the October 1970 kidnappings of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Vice-Premier Pierre Laporte. The government that had to deal with this crisis was the Liberal government headed by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the most prominent of the New Quebec federalists.

With the October crisis, the FLQ reached the zenith of their terrorist campaign and subsequently more or less disappeared. The Parti Quebecois, on the other hand, under the charismatic leadership of René Lévesque rose in popularity. In 1976 they won their first provincial election and in 1980 called the first referendum over separating from Canada. They lost the referendum by a fairly large margin. Forty percent voted in favour of separation, or rather in favour of giving the PQ a mandate to negotiate a new sovereignty association with the rest of Canada which is how the question was actually put to them, but sixty percent voted against it.

Shortly after the failure of the referendum, however, the separatists found a new way to threaten the unity of Confederation, with unintended help from their federalist enemy Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau wanted the British North America Act, by which Canada had been established as a country in 1867, to be patriated to Canada so that we could amend our own constitution. To do so required that the federal government and the provincial governments come to an agreement about the amendment process and so Trudeau entered into negotiations with the provincial governments about this. Ultimately, all provinces except one, Lévesque’s Quebec, ratified the Constitution Act when it passed both the British and Canadian Parliaments in 1982.

This created a constitutional crisis which was dumped on the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney that took power in 1984. With the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, and the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, Mulroney tried to convince Quebec to ratify the Constitution Act provincially, but each time failed to do so, despite the federalist Liberal Party of Robert Bourassa being in power during this period. In the fall of 1994, the Parti Quebecois, now lead by Jacques Parizeau, came to power. In 1995, they called a second referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Once again they did not get the results they desired, but the margin by which they lost was reduced to a fraction of what it had been in 1980.

Despite the fact that this would suggest an increase in popular support for separation it was at this point that the separatist movement began to lose steam. The two referendums had been very divisive within Quebec and had generated a great deal of ill-will between her and the rest of Canada while failing to gain enough support for separation to form a majority. Quebeckers, regardless of which way they voted in the referendum, indicated in the polls at the time that however it turned out, they did not want a third one. The polls continued to indicate this just before this election, and in handing the Parti Quebecois its biggest defeat in decades once the issue of separatism was raised, the people of Quebec could not have made the message any clearer.

Therefore Canadians owe M. Péladeau our gratitude. By raising the issue of sovereignty in this way, he has sank his own party in the polls, perhaps irrevocably, spared us another bitter round of the Quebec sovereignty debate, and shown English and French Canadians that in not wanting to go through this all over again we are more united than we thought.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Common Law or Sharia?

Countries within the British family of nations, such as Australia and my own country of Canada, have reason to be thankful for the many priceless civil and social institutions that we have inherited from Great Britain. Through these institutions, we benefit from over a thousand years of civil, social, and political evolution prior to the establishment of our own countries and do not have to attempt to remake the wheel. The parliamentary monarchy form of government is one such priceless institution. The common law is another, one from which even the family prodigal, Uncle Sam, continues to benefit.

The common law is the legal and judicial system that evolved in England in the Middle Ages. Its principles are basically these: there is one law of the land that is embodied in the customs and traditions of the people who live in it, that the Sovereign’s main duty is to uphold and defend this law, that the unity of the law means that the law must be applied in the same way in cases with similar circumstances and so the courts must rule in accordance with past precedents, and that the role of Parliament in the passing of statutory laws is primarily one of tweaking the system when needed. It is a legal system that has served the English-speaking world well and which harmonizes well with our parliamentary system of government. Attempts by politicians to monkey with it have been generally quite ill-conceived and usually ended up working out for the worse.

Late last month, John Bingham, Religious Affairs editor of the Telegraph reported that the Law Society of England and Wales, the professional association of English solicitors, has been instructing its members on how to draw up wills that comply with sharia, i.e., Islamic law. A day later he reported that this had prompted members of Parliament to demand an inquiry as to the extent to which sharia law has been integrated into the British legal system.

It should be pointed out that this is not the first time Britain has accommodated sharia law. Several years ago it was reported that sharia courts had been established in the United Kingdom for the arbitration of certain kinds of disputes among Britain’s Muslim community. This was made possible by a bill passed by the British Parliament almost twenty years ago that allows for disputes to be mediated by an arbitrator agreed upon by both parties rather than going through litigation before a court of law. Muslims here in Canada attempted to get similar legislation passed in Ontario about a decade ago but then-Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty opted to get rid of all religious based arbitration tribunals rather than to allow sharia tribunals to be established. There is an important difference, however, about this more recent development. While the Arbitration Act brought about the establishment of sharia courts, it did so by basically allowing for any third party, that both sides in a dispute agree upon, to act as an arbitrator under certain general guidelines. The Law Society’s guidelines, however, are for the drawing up of legal documents to be recognized in Her Majesty’s courts.

Perhaps you are asking yourself what the big deal is. Surely Britain’s solicitors will only be drawing up sharia wills for Muslim clients who request them. If a Briton has the right to draw up a will disposing of his possession as he pleases then does it not follow that if he wishes to follow the dictates of sharia in doing so that is up to him?

It is important that we be clear what the cause for concern here actually is. Several voices have been raised in opposition to the introduction of sharia wills that ground their objections on the “sexism” of sharia, its barbarism, or its incompatibility with the objector’s abstract understanding of human rights. Whatever validity these complaints may or may not have, the most important issue here is that if the British courts are to follow the common law tradition most of the time but to follow sharia law when dealing with Muslims then the whole point of having a common law, a law of the land that is the same for everybody, is pretty much defeated. If the common law ceases to be this, then one of the greatest of British institutions will have fallen. A country is an entity composed of a land, its people, and their traditional political, social, cultural and legal institutions. Forty six years ago, the great Tory statesman Enoch Powell warned that through a combination of large-scale immigration and legislation that aggressively favoured new immigrants over native Britons, Great Britain had become a nation “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” When sharia law begins to replace common law in Her Majesty’s courts that indicates that the nation has gone beyond piling up logs and is now holding a match to the kindling.

In economics, Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good. In this situation, a similar remark could be made about bad law. Introduced into Britain as an alternative to the courts in arbitrating disputes among Muslims, sharia has now entered the British courts as an alternative standard for the drawing up of certain legal documents. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that this is as far as it will go. What will happen when a dispute arises between a Muslim and a non-Muslim and the former wishes it to be settled in accordance with sharia and the latter in accordance with common law?

There are many who would look upon this development and see it as a step towards the transformation of Britain into an Islamic society in which Christians and Jews will face the experience of dhimmitude. Others would condemn such fears as Islamophobia, a term of recent coinage that would seem to denote an irrational fear of Islam. I confess to being among those who consider the former point of view to be by far the more sensible of the two. Words like Islamophobia are a dime a dozen, being coined on what sometimes seems like a daily basis to demonize those who object to rapid, massive, and irrevocable changes being made to the people, culture, institutions and traditions of Western countries. Ironically, those who shout the loudest about the evils of Islamophobia are also those who have the most to lose from Islam gaining strength and power in the Western world. The growth of Islam in the West is incompatible with virtually every other pet project of the progressive left which almost tempts me to cheer it on. Instead, I would remind those who see the crumbling of a thousand years’ worth of barriers between Christendom and the Islamic world as an unmixed positive development of G. K. Chesterton’s principle that would-be reformers who do not know or understand why a fence was erected in the first place, should never be allowed to tear it down. Go out and learn a proper appreciation for what the Frankish armies of Charles Martel accomplished at Tours in 732 A.D. and what the Holy League led by King Jan III Sobieski of Poland achieved at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 A.D. and then maybe you will be in a position to explain, if you still think so, why those who would rather live in a nominally Christian country than an officially Islamic country are displaying an ignorant and irrational form of bigotry.

Do not misunderstand me. We are required to behave justly to the stranger in our midst and indeed to behave justly to all men everywhere. Justice does not require, however, that countries in the British family of nations suspend the common law in favour of sharia when dealing with Muslims. Indeed, I would suggest that it would be far more in accordance with justice that we insist that Muslims in our countries answer to the common law just like everybody else.

It would be both an injustice and a terrible shame if the common law tradition were to be broken in the country that bequeathed it to the rest of us.