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School for Scofflaws

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School for Scofflaws June 1, 2016  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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Back to School — if it’s still there

The end of summer means getting ready to go back to school. Except there are fewer students going back than there used to be. Aside from boom-era Alberta, school boards across the country have been experiencing declining enrolment for most of this century. The problem is most acute in those areas where there are insufficient immigrants to make up for years of below-replacement birth rates. Ask any recent graduate with a degree in education if she has work and the answer is that she hopes to land a full-time position after a few years of doing substitute work and short-term replacements when teachers are on maternity leave or tending to their psychological health.

Last fall there was a controversy in Toronto as some 800 students were initially kept out of school in response to the new provincial sex-ed curriculum. The public school board tried to play that up as a cause of declining enrolment, the result of which would be teacher jobs cut, perhaps as many as a hundred. Robyn Urback at the National Post was having none of it, not wanting to give too much credit to the protestors, for whom she had little sympathy. There were 2,400 fewer students than expected last September in Toronto, and only a few of those could be attributed to the sex-ed curriculum. Urback noted in a January 15, 2016, article that numbers have “declined steadily since 2005, because of a combination of factors, including changing family sizes, neighbourhood demographic shifts and immigrant settlement patterns….” That’s actually three ways of describing the same problem: not enough babies. And if there aren’t enough babies, all the shifts and settlement patterns can’t produce enough students to keep schools open and teachers on staff.

In Ontario alone, school boards spend about $1 billion annually – some 5 per cent of total operating budgets – on buildings that have extra space. There are some 600 schools in the province that are not even half full. In the province’s largest school board – the Toronto public board - 20 per cent of the schools are at less than two thirds capacity. Between 1998 and 2013, the Toronto board closed 30 schools.

“Rather than spending a billion dollars on supporting empty space,” then-education minister Liz Sandals told the Globe and Mail in January 2015, “what we really want to do is spend money on good programs for kids who actually exist.”

The über-progressive Ontario government would never express a preference for childbearing, but the minister stumbled into the truth – there are simply too few kids.

Demographic change in Canada has preoccupied policy-makers for a generation now, but almost entirely under the rubric of aging and its impact on retirement security and health care. It’s certainly true that if there are significantly fewer children being born, the population does age. But there are immediate crises that come from the lack of children itself. The slow but steady decline of the education system is one – fewer schools, fewer programs, fewer teachers. Canada has not reached the stage of the former East Germany, where the lack of total population has forced municipalities to tear up the ground to replace sewer pipes with narrower ones, there not being enough people using the system to, ahem, move things along in the original pipes.

For years, the image of a large meal moving through the guts of a python has been used for the baby boomers. The implication was that after that cohort had been digested, matters would return to normal. But there really is no normal in demographics, and the python is beginning to show signs of wasting away. The crisis of low birth rates is not only nursing homes full of people with no one to visit them but empty classrooms with no children to teach.

Scofflaws and the census

I had been travelling a lot early in the summer, so fell behind on the mail. Her Majesty’s Government for Canada proved to be a frequent correspondent in May, or at least that part of the sprawling State that runs the census. I had been awarded the long-form census and, not having had time to wade through its more than 50 questions on the day appointed by Statistics Canada, was receiving more frequent invitations. One is not permitted to send in regrets.

“Census reminder. Complete it today – it’s the law.”

Which does not quite have the charm of payment reminders from banks and credit card companies, which often throw in a “please.” But when you have the force of the coercive State power behind you, who needs to be polite?

“By law, your household must complete a census questionnaire,” Statistics Canada explains. “Your answers are collected under the authority of the Statistics Act and will be kept strictly confidential.”

Of course. Data is very secure. On the other hand, the same census form blithely informs us of this: “In order to reduce the number of questions in this questionnaire, Statistics Canada will obtain your income information from personal income tax and benefits records.”

Excellent. Those confidential records held by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) will be shipped on over to StatsCan so as to make the census less burdensome. If only Ontario’s electronic health records boondoggle had succeeded, StatsCan could have simplified the form even more by surveying my latest medical. Certainly when we complete the income data on the census, that won’t be shipped back to the CRA, just to ensure that we are paying our allotted portions for Canada’s vital public services.

That’s the purpose of the census, of course – every household having to account for itself to the State, and every fourth household having to – by law – report on its number of bathrooms or how much is paid in spousal or child support. That information is “… vital for planning public services.”

Census propaganda prattles on enthusiastically about how our parks and hospitals, roads and pensions would not be in the tip-top shape that they are without regular census data at hand. To the statist bent of mind, how could it be otherwise? But to those who observe that this vast population manages to, for example, feed and clothe itself without government planners at work, the whole enterprise is a reminder that the State can’t help itself – it loves to keep track of people. Food and clothing are too important, so they rely on free people making free decisions – we call that a market. Highways and health care, on the other hand, are best organized by State data collection.

I don’t actually have strong views on the census. Had I been at home and at leisure on the appointed day, I would likely have obeyed the census diktat. A few years back, I gave the government my retina scan in order to be able to get through an airport security queue in decent time. So the libertarian horse has long left the barn, been shot in the pasture, left to die slowly and then mercilessly flogged post-mortem with “census reminders” and other courtesies of the bureaucratic State.

Yet there are those who do have strong views about the census, who yearn for the smack of firm government and celebrate the mandatory form-filling. Over at the Globe and Mail, it was observed with approval that “the large number of early filers suggests that millions share a fervour to do their statistical duty.” Alas, that fervour went unrequited in the newsroom, as “the Globe editorial board were not among the 25 per cent of Canadians chosen to complete the long questionnaire. Count us among the disappointed.”

Perhaps the good folks at StatsCan could – with total confidentially, of course – let their colleagues at the CRA know about the dejected scribes. An aggressive tax audit could be arranged, a colonoscopic examination of one’s personal details yielding the satisfaction of doing one’s duty to modern State.

For my part, I have yet to get around to the long-form census, and the precious days of summer seem to beckon me to almost any diversion other than government form-filling.

Then there is the ambivalence of the Scriptures about the census. King David’s adventures in early expansive statecraft – a census for the purpose of taxation, or was it “planning public services” – did not please the Lord. Other censuses – censi? – were instruments of the Lord’s providence so that Israel might better survive in times of hardship and war. It has always moved me that the Church fathers interpreted that first “census of the whole world” under Caesar Augustus as an indication that when it came time to count the human race, God would be present for the including.

I don’t mind being a scofflaw regarding Canada’s census. But there is a number among which I certainly do want to be counted. I might have missed census day 2016, but don’t leave me behind when the saints go marching in.

Wrestling with Trump and Ali

The Calgary Stampede came and went this year without one of the traditions of the 1970s and '80s – an international, star-studded professional wrestling card put on by Stu Hart of Stampede Wrestling. Every Friday night on the Stampede grounds, in the somewhat shabby Victoria Pavilion, Hart and his sons would stage Stampede Wrestling. But once a year, for the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” he would fill the old Corral, and then the Saddledome, with the biggest and the best. André the Giant was a regular in the 1970s. The one time I was old enough to go to the big show with my friends, it was Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy. The show was spectacular, but the crazed fans rather frightened me – might I turn into that? – and the standard passion of every boy who grew up in Calgary in the 1970s, professional wrestling, began to cool. Recently though, professional wrestling has come back, this time as presidential politics.

Our publisher, Peter Stockland, spotted it right away. Perhaps his Calgary years – as an adult, mind you – gave him a taste for the squared circle. At any rate, he has kept up with the professional wrestling game and thinks that it explains a lot about Donald Trump’s appeal. Peter wrote this past spring on the Cardus blog, alerting me to the fact that even professional wrestling had experienced its share of civilizational decline.

“The magic of professional wrestling in its halcyon days of the 1950s and early 1960s was its capacity to give the audience the confidence of being in the know. Mad Dog Vachon and Gorgeous George were hybrid parodies of real life and genuine sport. The paying public got the joke and brought laughing suspension of disbelief ringside. It knew the blood was fake yet was happy to be mystified as to how it got all over Abdullah the Butcher’s face. [Today’s World Wrestling Entertainment] fans, by contrast, come armed to the teeth with contempt. Their entire worlds, after all, are largely a function of pure character manipulation, heavily populated by phonies and fakes and baby faces who became heels from one week to the next. Nowhere was that more true than in ‘real’ professional sport, which the times have exposed as sunken in a venality more venomous than any old-style professional wrestler could have invented. Did you spend your childhood cheering for Barry Bonds? At least the Undertaker and Triple H never pretended to be anything other than oversized ’roid boys.
“Enter The Donald. Trump, whose name could be that of a professional wrestler from any era, began flirting with the WWE in the ’90s but became directly involved when McMahon staged a parody fight mimicking the New York real estate mogul’s feud with Rosie O’Donnell in 2007. That led to a fake war of words between the two billionaires that escalated to a fake challenge to fight, the signing of a fake contract and, ultimately, Trump bushwhacking McMahon from behind, body slamming him and shaving the wrestling promoter’s head with help from Stone Cold Steve Austin.”

Fans of professional wrestling know that the trash talk, as we would call it now, is essential. Now the talking takes up a good part of the show. And, it appears, it is professional wrestling from which Trump takes his oratorical cues, not Churchill or Reagan.

“Watch Trump speak or, to use the word in its broadest possible sense, debate, and you see the bombast, the braggadocio, the amphetamine-run-on hyperbole, the sentence fragmentation and non sequiturs that are a staple of, and no doubt lifted from, the style of post-match in-ring interviews. Even the downturn of his mouth when he humiliates an opponent is a simulacrum of the villainous wrestler’s disdain for the defeated opponent he has just left in a dazed and mewling heap. But more than just audio and visual effects are at work. Listen to the content, and you can hear the recycling of WWE levels of toxic cynicism between Trump and his supporters. As much as those who are appalled by Trump like to disparage his base for being stump-toothed racist idiots, does anyone seriously believe that he will build a wall the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border and force Mexico to pay for it? That he will round up and deport 12 million people? That he ‘likes’ the monster Vladimir Putin?
“What is far more likely is that they believe his lies, flashy bits bobbing in the omnipresent swamp of political lying, at least are as emotionally satisfying as the staged sound of a metal chair hitting someone in the back of the head. No real harm, no real foul, and certainly none as debilitating as the damage done to them on an almost daily basis in a fraudulent, inherently untrustworthy world.”

Peter is right. It was not the cult of the CEO that gave us Donald Trump. Or the celebrity worship of our culture. Or the world of reality television, which, in a startling inversion, involves not actors pretending to be real people but real people acting how they think actors would pretend to be real people. Donald Trump has brought professional wrestling to politics. And in a year where WrestleMania had more people attend in person than the Super Bowl, it is a potent force.

As persuasive, though, as Peter’s analysis is of Trump’s professional wrestling ethos, his reference to Gorgeous George points us to a trend in our culture that is deeper than just one presidential election cycle. The death of Muhammad Ali had me revisit the life of a man in whom there was much I admired. Yet as I watched more of the old Ali video, I recognized the father of the trash-talking culture that Trump has introduced to politics. Perhaps that’s because Trump and Ali have the same rhetorical grandfather – Gorgeous George, the professional wrestler.

Ali himself was a man of principle, courage and generosity. Yet above all he was a great showman, and much of the show was not fit for mature audiences.

He was insulting and offensive, which was widely excused by his wit. He shamelessly exploited the distinction between the “light-skinned” and “darkskinned” Negro with vicious verbal assaults on his fellow black boxers. Ali’s great friend and ally in civil rights, broadcaster Howard Cosell, was eased out of Monday Night Football in 1983 for an offhand and innocent remark. He called a black football player a “little monkey” (a term he had used for a white player before). Eight years earlier, Ali spent months deriding Joe Frazier as a “gorilla,” greeted not with outrage but widespread hilarity.

Ali realized just in time that there was plenty of room in popular culture for playing the braggart, the buffoon and the bully. He adopted his act from Gorgeous George, the professional wrestler, and spread abroad the theatrical premise of pro wrestling, that one could be maximally outrageous without consequence, everything being scripted.

“Where do you think I would be next week if didn’t know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice?” wrote Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Sports Illustrated before his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston. “I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, Ky., my home town, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yes, suh’ and ‘no, suh’ and knowing my place.”

He said “some pretty insulting things about Sonny Liston, but…mostly to get people to talking about the fight,” wrote Clay, lifting the curtain on the act. “I said to myself, how am I going to get a crack at the title?... I knew I’d have to start talking about it – I mean really talking, screaming and yelling and acting like some kind of a nut… I would be like Gorgeous George, the wrestler, who got so famous by being flashy and exaggerating everything and making people notice him. You can see how it has turned out – just the way I wanted it to.”

That was Ali before he won the title from Liston. It was not an old man reminiscing about the extravagances of his youth. No, Ali told everybody what he was doing – the mania, the insults, the bragging – ahead of time. It was a show; but just like professional wrestling, it attracted no less a devoted following for everyone knowing that it was mostly fake and only partly real. None of that takes away from the admirable episodes in Ali’s long life, but neither do they absolve the toxins Ali brought into American culture, and derivatively into America’s body politic.

In his final months, Ali objected to Trump’s policy of temporarily halting all Muslim immigration into the United States, but the policy came in a package he would have recognized – inflate a fault, trash a character, promise an outlandish response. And when anyone has the temerity to raise a question, the response is the same: I am the greatest of all time!

Or, as it is said today: I am going to make America great again!

Ali is dead, but the bridge he built between the culture of professional wrestling and mainstream culture is sturdy and standing. Donald Trump is only the most notorious to cross it. Ali’s memorial did not include Donald Trump but, oddly enough for a ceremony presided over by Muslim clergy, did include Bill Clinton and Billy Crystal. I caught some of it, but in the parts I saw no one reached for Shakespeare. In fairness, no one at a funeral reaches for this: The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

That, I fear, is Ali. He did much good, little of it understood by those who praise him most and who are most unlikely to emulate his willingness to sacrifice for his faith and his politics. But the evil he did – the self-absorption, the arrogance, the vanity, the insults, the cruelty, the wasteful extravagance – lives on, going from strength to strength, perhaps even to the White House. Muhammad Ali, should he be afflicted with observing from beyond what he partially wrought, is unlikely to rest in peace. And somewhere, perhaps on the undercard of some show in the underworld, Gorgeous George is having a long, long, last laugh.

Kraków: City where the 20th Century happened

I spend about 10 days every July in Kraków, teaching at a seminar organized by the biographer of Saint John Paul II, George Weigel. This summer my stay was extended by World Youth Day (WYD), the massive gathering of young Catholic adults with the Pope. John Paul began World Youth Day and it became a signature event of his pontificate. It moves around the world, the last one in John Paul’s life being in Toronto in 2002. This summer it was held in Kraków, and I told the young pilgrims I guided that it was not a matter of WYD taking a nostalgic turn in John Paul’s beloved home city but an opportunity to learn from Kraków itself.

For unrelated reasons, I usually visit Rome as well as Jerusalem once a year. For a Christian, to visit the Holy Land is to encounter Jesus again in the land He belonged to as a son of Abraham, a son of David. For a Catholic, to visit Rome is to encounter the universality and the unity of the Church, gathered around her universal pastor throughout time and space. And I would put my annual visit to Kraków alongside those two cities as a place of pilgrimage. Kraków is a holy city because it is where God’s providence uniquely answered the evils of our time. It is where the 20th century happened.

That was highlighted, implicitly, this summer as I found myself in Kraków while the Prime Minister was visiting Poland and Ukraine. The NATO summit was in Warsaw, no doubt to mark the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The shift from Warsaw Pact to NATO host gives some sense of the momentous history that has unfolded in Poland. History is very much churning next door in Ukraine as well; and in visiting Poland and Ukraine, Justin Trudeau was visiting what historian Timothy Snyder has aptly called “the bloodlands,” those vast territories between Berlin and Moscow where the slaughter was counted not in millions but tens of millions. There was no more lethal place to be in the history of the world than the bloodlands of the 20th century. Yet from there came a great triumph rooted in a millennium of Polish Christian witness.

Kraków, the royal and ancient capital of Poland, is best known today by Catholics as the city of Saint Faustina, the hitherto obscure nun who received revelations about Divine Mercy, and the city of the pope of mercy, Saint John Paul the Great. Yet it deserves the attention of not only the Church but also the world. The historian’s eyes see present all the principal events of a century of geopolitics. The eyes of faith see the depths of iniquity and the heights of holiness.

The 21st century opened with Kraków a free city in an independent Poland, spiritual capital to a sovereign and vibrant people. For much of the previous hundred years, such a hopeful outcome was in doubt. The 20th century opened with Kraków, city of Polish kings, belonging to the Habsburg Empire. Poland had been erased from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, carved up by the imperial houses of Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. The Polish nation, deprived of the instruments of sovereignty, turned to its spiritual and cultural heritage to sustain itself. It went on an interior pilgrimage to the tombs of the kings buried in Wawel Cathedral of Kraków and the relics of Saint Stanislaus, the bishop-martyr, at Skałka, a short walk down from Wawel hill. That challenge of sustaining a nationality without a nation- state – defining a nation by culture rather than political sovereignty – would give shape to much of 20th century geopolitics and sundry national liberation movements.

The end of the Great War marked the definitive end of the altar-and-throne arrangements that characterized the ancien régime, not least because the imperial thrones were gone. The German kaiser, the Russian tsar, the Habsburg emperor and even the Ottoman sultan were deposed. What would follow would not be benign.

After the Great War, Poland emerged once again on the map of Europe as an independent republic, only to be immediately invaded by Bolshevik Russia. The appetite of Moscow to enslave the lands, the peoples and the churches of eastern and central Europe would give shape to the interwar period, the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. Poland rebuffed Russia in 1920 – Poles call it the Miracle on the Vistula – and Kraków and its sister city of Lviv (then part of Poland; now part of Ukraine) remained outside of Moscow’s grasp. Yet Poland’s freedom was precarious. In the 1930s, it watched the rearmament of Germany to the west and Stalin’s Ukrainian terror famine to the east. The time for the two powers to carve up Poland again was coming.

During these precious years of independence, a young boy grew up in the nearby town of Wadowice. Karol Wojtyła’s father had fought in the army of the Habsburg Emperor, the last emperor, Charles of Austria, who the boy would grow up to declare a blessed in 2004. The boy would move to Kraków for university studies and was serving First Friday Mass in Wawel Cathedral when Luftwaffe bombers arrived on September 1, 1939. A few weeks later, the Red Army rumbled in from the east. Kraków was taken by Hitler, and its archbishop, Adam Sapieha, would prove a lion in its defence. Lviv would be taken by Stalin; and its archbishop, the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, would prove equally leonine.

Between the two wars, a young Polish nun of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Faustina Kowalska, received apparitions of Jesus, asking that she promote devotion to the Divine Mercy. Rome was initially skeptical, even suppressing her writings for decades. Yet 62 years after her death in Kraków in October 1938, the image of Divine Mercy was ubiquitous in Catholic parishes the world over. Sunday within the octave of Easter was declared Divine Mercy Sunday, and she was the first canonized saint of the new millennium. The Polish pope had more than a little to do with that.

Saint Faustina died a short drive away from what would become a veritable icon of a world without mercy. In the Kraków archdiocese, the Nazis built what John Paul would later call the “Golgotha of the Modern World”: Auschwitz, the death camp of the Jews. Polish Christians died at Auschwitz, too, none more famous than the greatest Polish missionary and evangelist of his generation, Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of charity who kept watch at the very gates of hell.

Kraków’s “liberation” by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War meant that Poland and her neighbours would in fact lose twice over: first in the war, then in the communist peace. It was the election of the archbishop of Kraków in 1978 that would mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. He returned in 1979 to his “beloved Kraków,” the heart of Poland’s millennial Christian heritage, and 10 years later Poland was free. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself was consigned to the ash heap of history. The 20th century bore the burden of too much history, and that burden crushed the lives of countless peoples as well as nations. Poland was not crushed. Her long exile from independence from 1795 to 1919 forged her character, purified her witness, taught her to manoeuvre without moral compromise. That witness would change the world of the 20th century and give shape to the hope of a more humane 21st.

The kings of Poland are buried in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral, arrayed around a small chapel. In the chapel itself, the most prominent place is given to King John III Sobieski, who in 1683 defeated the Ottoman Turks at Vienna, one of the most important battles in the history of Europe. As a newly ordained priest in 1946, John Paul celebrated his first Holy Mass in that chapel, choosing to associate himself with the noble history of the Polish nation, consecrated to God. After the Battle of Vienna, Sobieski was hailed as the saviour of Europe and of Christendom. Sobieski had rather a different view, a Polish view about the working out of divine providence in history. He summarized Vienna by evoking Julius Caesar to much different effect. He would write: “Veni, vidi, Deus vincit!” (“I came, I saw, God conquered!”)

The Christian conviction that God is not absent from history, that His finger continues to write with the crooked lines of human events, is vindicated in our time in no place more than Kraków. Here, in the bloodiest place in the bloodiest of centuries, God did conquer. Jerusalem and Rome are cities of Biblical revelation. Kraków is not a Biblical city but a city shaped by Biblical vision, one where Biblical vision has shaped our history. It’s worth a pilgrimage to see how God conquered the evils of our time.

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