Canada's great and not-so-good

While I was away for the weekend (you can't leave some people unsupervised), Canada's best and brightest gathered to ponder this weird "religion" thing for the first time in the Couchiching Conference's 73 years. They even invited an adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush. Then they heckled him. How embarrassing is that? Well, suppose a notable Canadian were invited to a gathering of right-wing American intellectuals (now you laugh), offered culturally radical views and were booed. Oh the fun we'd have calling Americans knuckle-dragging morons who can't handle complexity or truth. But now the shoe's on the other foot. Or hand.

I wasn't at Couchiching; my invitation seems unaccountably to have been lost in the mail yet again. But evidently Richard Land, a senior official of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, was asked to advise President Bush to drop "this ridiculous idea" of amending the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. He replied, "If the compelling reason for same-sex marriage is you have a caring, loving relationship, how are you going to stop polygamy? If it is a caring, loving relationship, how are you going to stop consensual incest, between adults, brothers and sisters, if it is a consensual relationship?" And the crowd jeered.

Evidently the intellectuals at Couchiching dispute either his premise as to the main justification for gay marriage, or else his reasoning about where that premise logically leads. And presumably they believe they could do so with persuasive clarity. (Ideally something better than "Well, you can't have three people because that would be more than two.") But I'm still waiting. It suggests to me that something about their position, or the spectacular suddenness of its triumph, secretly makes them uneasy.

As First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus recently wrote, "Although nobody in all of human history suggested the idea until about five years ago, the major media are letting us know that they are getting more than a mite impatient with the bigots and reactionaries who are resisting the self-evident good that is same-sex marriage." So are the courts; according to former Ontario premier David Peterson in the Globe and Mail, in upholding gay marriage the Yukon Supreme Court just "ruled that the discrimination is so obvious and so well-established, governments ought to have known better" and took the unusual step of ordering the federal and Yukon governments to pay the appellants' full legal costs. And now the intellectuals are in full sneer.

Yet on June 8, 1999, just five years ago, then-justice minister Anne McLellan suggested the Commons was wasting its time even debating "a motion, on which, I suspect, there will be no fundamental disagreement inside or outside the House," but said "Let me state again for the record that the government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage or of legislating same-sex marriages," and "I support the motion for maintaining the clear legal definition of marriage in Canada as the union of one man and one woman ..." Does the current deputy prime minister now admit to ever having met this person? Does she consider her honest?

It is not inconceivable to change one's mind on a major issue. Nor is it necessarily discreditable: open-mindedness is good provided, as G.K. Chesterton said, the ultimate purpose is, as with an open mouth, to close it again on something solid. But normally in such cases one is more than happy to give a reasoned explanation. So why the barnyard noises at Couchiching instead?

Of course, outbreaks of boorishness can occur anywhere and some in the audience deplored the jeering. Couchiching Institute president David McGown admitted it's the first he's seen in a decade at what he calls "Canada's annual gathering of the great and the good" (which is surely, like "sexy," the sort of thing you may hope people will say of you, and even privately think they should say, but is vain and vulgar to say of yourself). But he denied the booing was "anti-American." Rather, it was "very pro-Canadian," and "I think what we heard last night was that stark social, cultural difference that Michael Adams talked about."

Actually, what you heard was a Bronx cheer. Which is strange since popular mythology has it that Canadians are so polite they apologize if you step on their foot, while Americans are loud boors in even louder clothes.

Worse, experience and experiment alike suggest that educated people become angry when given only one side of an issue, whereas the uneducated become angry when given both. So this shameful display could plausibly lead U.S. Republicans to consider Canadian intellectuals mindless knuckle-draggers. How embarrassing is that?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson