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View from the North: Resisting “soft-totalitarianism” in Canada?

Posted: July 16, 2017 at 10:00 am   /   by

Examining the ethical challenges for sincerely-believing Christians of living in accord with their faith in current-day Canada

By Mark Wegierski

This essay is based on the draft of an English-language presentation read at the First Sir Thomas More Colloquium: Diplomacy, Literature, Politics, at the Akademia Polonijna (Polonia University) in Czestochowa, Poland, held on March 11-12, 2010.

The idea of so-called “soft totalitarianism” has emerged from various dystopian novels and political writings of the Twentieth Century. In his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), and a preface to it, Brave New World Re-visited (written after World War II), Aldous Huxley suggested a possible future society that would be mostly non-coercive, but at the same time embrace a thoroughgoing, totalitarian exclusion of traditional notions of religion, history, and family. While George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), portrayed a highly coercive society, in his “Appendix” Orwell pointed out that semantic control (the control of vocabulary and language) was the key to the maintenance of the system – “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak”. This may suggest that if semantic control could somehow be maintained through non-coercive means, an apparatus of coercion might become secondary for controlling people. In 1941, James Burham’s The Managerial Revolution raised the notion that a new caste of managers would control society regardless of whether a given society was ostensibly democratic or not. Philip Rieff, in his seminal work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), pointed out how a regime characterized by the so-called therapeutic mode could work to exclude traditional understandings of the world. Jacques Ellul, in his critiques of the technological society, pointed to the technological system as an inhuman framework from which all more traditional notions were increasingly excluded. Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant enunciated a similar critique of technology. Roland Huntford, in his classic work, The New Totalitarians, drew attention to contemporary Sweden as a society that, while ostensibly a democracy, could be characterized as socially totalitarian. Christopher Lasch, in a series of books including The Culture of Narcissism; The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics; and The Revolt of the Elites: and the Betrayal of Democracy pointed to an all pervasive current-day system that undermined traditional verities and meaningful democracy. Paul Edward Gottfried, in a series of books including After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State, and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy, has amplified and updated the insights of Burnham into our contemporary times. On the other hand, some on the Left have tried to characterize current-day society as “totalitarian” because of its all-pervasive, brand- and advertising-driven consumerism. Pope John Paul II had himself referred to a “thinly disguised totalitarianism” in the current-day West.

It has become almost universally accepted that so-called “hard totalitarianism” – typified by regimes such as those of Hitler and Stalin – is something very bad. At the same time, however, the notion of a “soft totalitarianism” – that may in fact arise in the most ostensibly free and democratic systems – has been given far less attention.

The ideas presented here may perhaps be surprising to a Polish audience. The author will attempt to delineate how current-day Canada – often considered a paragon of freedom and democracy – may be moving in directions that could be termed “soft totalitarian.” The author was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and has lived there for over fifty years. He has seen monumental, massive change rolling over the Canadian social and cultural landscape, much of which he has perceived with increasing ambiguity. He will attempt to sketch out how, in current-day Canada, it is increasingly difficult for sincerely-believing Christians to live in accord with their faith.

Indeed, some analogies may be seen between the dilemmas faced by Sir Thomas More in his refusal to submit to the dictates of a powerful State, and the problems faced by all sincerely-believing Christians in current-day Canada. Interestingly enough, it may be recalled that the eminent historian Norman Davies has pointed out that Henry VIII may have had more in common with his contemporary Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy, than most English historians have usually realized.

It may be recalled that Protestant England, although typically considered as the bastion of freedom and rights among the European countries, actually extended a harsh and punitive regime towards its Roman Catholics over many centuries – and especially in Scotland and Ireland which England had conquered. Despite England’s traditions of “the rights of Englishmen” — legal and social instruments were put into place to harry Roman Catholics, such as the Test Acts. Perhaps one could draw a certain analogy to current-day Canada which – although it prides itself on being the “most free” and “most democratic” society on the planet – has put into place a variety of legal and social instruments that – it could be argued – create difficulties for the real flourishing of those of its citizens who are sincerely-believing Christians.

By the term “sincerely-believing Christians” the author would like to mean those members of the various Christian churches who try to take their faith seriously, and try to look to it as a source for day-to-day living. If they are Roman Catholics, for example, they would be those persons paying at least some attention to the various official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. These are also persons who would wish for a considerable level of respect for their respective denominations across the society at large.

The Media Environment

The author looks at the first pillar of the system, the media environment.

The first aspect of Canadian society to be considered is the all-pervasive media environment. One aspect of media is the North American (U.S. and Canada) pop-culture. This pop-culture, focussed on such subgenres as rock and rap music, sports, fashion, and “porn” tends to encourage very antinomian attitudes, especially among young people. Various media critics such as Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death; The Disappearance of Childhood) have drawn attention to the media’s sexualization of the lifeworld, and the promotion of what in the old days were called loose lifestyles. This heavily pervasive sexualization comes into immediate conflict with the moral teachings of the Christian churches – and the latter become perceived as increasingly tedious and irrelevant to young people. Such notions as sexual abstinence and chastity are seen with ever increasing derision.

Furthermore, there is in most current-day popular comedy and satire in Canada today, a focus on the Christian churches as the typical target of frequently derisive humour. The author himself remembers a rather nasty sketch on one of Canada’s premiere comedy shows (Royal Canadian Air Farce) deriding Pope John Paul II. Appreciation of such often unfunny humour is frequently seen as a mark of sophistication among the so-called “cool” people. Thus, attitudes of derision against Christianity become popularly ever more ingrained.

Another aspect of media is the function of news and information. Here one notices an unusual degree of media scrutiny of the various Christian churches, and especially of the Roman Catholic Church. The figure of the “pedophile priest” has become a fixture of North American pop-culture today. Other professional groups in society where sexual abuse may occur in ratios comparable to those among the Roman Catholic priesthood (this ratio is certainly not as high as the impression one might get from media reports) are very rarely brought to as much public attention.

The media also dwell heavily on various past iniquities of the Christian churches, especially of the Roman Catholic Church. The media tend to enthusiastically take up such stories as the Catholic Church’s purported complicity in the Holocaust, the idiocy of fundamentalist Protestants, and so forth. In 2000, when Stockwell Day became leader of the centre-right Canadian Alliance, he was sandbagged in the November federal election by being derided as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”.

One might indeed perceive a generalized anti-Christian bias in the Canadian media as a whole. In March 2005, a Conservative member of the federal Parliament (Cheryl Gallant) circulated at the Conservative convention, a leaflet entitled, “Is Christianity under attack?” The reaction of the media was savage, and the M.P. was almost universally denounced as an “extremist”. By this act alone, the M.P. was considered to have negated her chances at ever being named to the Cabinet, should the Conservatives have won an upcoming election.

Nevertheless, the media’s attitude to Christianity can sometimes admittedly be seen as somewhat bivalent. When Christians happen to embrace so-called “progressive” causes such as helping the poor and disadvantaged, especially in the Third World, they are usually praised. However, when they step outside the parametres of what current-day society – or more precisely, today’s opinion-forming elites — consider “permissible” – even when these are some of the core teachings of the Christian churches – they are severely censured.

The Juridical Environment

The author looks at the second pillar of the system, the juridical environment.

The second pillar of the system is the juridical environment. Laws against libel and slander may be one of the few legal instruments left to Christians. However, the Canadian Supreme Court has weakened the definitions of libel and slander. There was the case of a woman who had objected to what she considered as the teaching of pro-homosexual attitudes in the public schools of Surrey, British Columbia. Rafe Mair, a talk-show host in British Columbia, called her a “Nazi” and a “Klansman” on the airwaves. She sued for libel, but, after a lengthy process, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Mair’s statements had constituted “fair comment”.

At the same time, however, there are in place at the federal and provincial levels, so-called human rights tribunals and commissions, among whose tasks have latterly become the regulation of speech that is considered hateful or discriminatory.

A Protestant minister had a rather pointed letter about homosexuality published in the Red Deer Advocate (a major local newspaper) in Alberta. A homosexual activist complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commision, with the result that the minister was required to pay a hefty fine, write a letter of apology, and was ordered to never again publicly write his opinions about homosexuality.

A homosexual activist launched a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission that claimed that Catholic Insight (a magazine of tradition-minded Catholics), willfully promoted hatred against gays and lesbians. Although the publication was completely exonerated after fairly onerous legal proceedings, the legal costs the magazine had to bear amounted to upwards of $20,000 – money which a small magazine could ill afford. This pointed to a situation where the very process of defending against a human rights complaint constituted a significant burden on the accused.

In Ontario, there was the case of Christian Horizons. An employee of the organization “came out” as a lesbian (having earlier signed an agreement to remain in conformity with the organization’s code of conduct, which prohibited homosexual activity among employees). She was fired by the organization, and went to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The Commission ruled that the firing was illegal, and that religious organizations were not allowed to set such criteria for their employees.

It may be fairly clear that in Canada’s juridical system today, the chances of sincerely-believing Christians being appointed to more senior judgeships are rather curtailed. In appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada, for example, the media would pay enormous attention to whether an appointee might threaten the regime of unrestricted abortion in Canada. It may be surmised that an appointee opposed to unrestricted abortion would face a firestorm of criticism. Yet, opposition to abortion is often considered as one of the most important tenets of belief in, for example, the Roman Catholic Church.

The regime of unrestricted abortion also imposes ethical dilemmas for healthcare professionals who are trying to avoid participating in the culture of abortion and contraception. For example, there have been some attempts to make the study of abortion procedures mandatory in medical school. Thus, a conscientious Christian would find it difficult to finish his or her medical studies in such a situation. At the same time, nurses may be required to participate in abortion procedures in public hospitals regardless of their personal beliefs. Hospitals once associated with the Catholic Church might be forced to offer abortion services. Pharmacists may be required to prescribe so-called “morning-after pills” regardless of their personal beliefs.

There have also been laws made to prevent peaceful protest in the vicinity of abortion clinics. Some anti-abortion protestors have defiantly carried out such peaceful protests, for which they were subsequently arrested by the police, tried in court, and have actually served months or even years of jail time.

Another method of pressure by the State against the churches is the possibility of revocation of tax-exempt and charitable status. By longstanding tradition, churches are exempt from most taxes in Canada. Charitable status means that donations to a given charity can be claimed on one’s income tax form, which can in some cases significantly reduce one’s taxes. There is thus an incentive to give charitable donations. During the acrimonious debate over “same-sex marriage” in 2003-2005, there were threats made by Revenue Canada that the charitable status of Catholic charities could be revoked, if the Catholic Church continued its vocal opposition to “same-sex marriage”. Some years ago, the charitable status of a small, evangelical Protestant church in Alberta had been revoked. Although the main reason claimed for this by Revenue Canada was “financial irregularities” there were also added statements by the government agency that vocal opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion may constitute “political activity” – which is in Canadian law prohibited to charitable organizations. Also, Catholic adoption agencies that refuse to place children into gay or lesbian households, can be threatened with the revocation of their charitable status.

The Mass-Education System

The author looks at the third main pillar, the mass-education system.

The third main pillar of the regime is the mass education system. Under the Canadian Constitution education is solely under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Also, the original Canadian constitution of 1867 made explicit provision for religious schooling – and especially separate Catholic education. Thus, Canada has public schools, as well as “Catholic public” schools. The tendency in public schools has been towards ever more relentless secularization. The “Catholic public” schools have also moved in the direction of increasing conformity with the secular culture. In the public schools, Christianity has been almost totally expunged. Thus, the public schools fail to offer any kind of “counter-ethic” to the mass media.

Much of public schooling has been directed into anti-Christian trajectories by such aspects as the frequently all-pervasive “sex education” which is being pushed into lower and lower grades, and so-called “anti-homophobic” instruction. Canadian society today is said to be festering with “homophobia” – which the public schools have to counteract with their inculcation of “anti-homophobic” attitudes. These twin aspects of the official curriculum of study doubtless make it difficult for children of sincerely-believing Christian parents to attend public schools. And now there are attempts to bring the “Catholic public” system into total conformity with the public system in the areas of sex education and anti-homophobic instruction. Christian private schools are often expensive and there are comparatively few of them, and home schooling is far less frequently seen in Canada than in the United States. The latter are fairly difficult options, as parents have to pay the education portion of their property taxes regardless of whether their children are attending public schools or not.

Quebec was traditionally a distinctly Roman Catholic part of Canada. Now, however, it has become one of the most secular provinces. The residues of the “Catholic public” system have been abolished in Quebec. Indeed, the provincial government has attempted to introduce a mandatory program into the curriculum of all schools (public and private) called ERC (Ethics and Religious Culture). The program is to teach students “that all religions are equal”, and “that no religion can claim to be truer than any other religion”. Obviously, not only Christians but other religious groups are enraged by this mandatory program.

At the level of colleges and universities there is clearly the presence of highly secular curricula in the humanities and social sciences which tend to undermine or minimize the role of Christianity in human endeavour. Also, one notices attempts to deny recognition to pro-life campus clubs, or to restrict the activities of pro-life campus clubs. There have also been attempts to prevent some pro-life and traditionalist Christian representatives from speaking at campus events.

Unlike in the United States with its hundreds of private, frequently religiously-affiliated colleges, there are very few private colleges and universities in Canada. The hundreds of private religious colleges in the United States can exercise a certain counter-weight to the pop-culture and mass media there.

Among the most prominent private Christian universities in Canada is Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. TWU ran into difficulties when the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation refused to offer teachers’ accreditation to graduates of TWU’s degree in education. The basis for the refusal was that TWU was claimed to be “inculcating homophobia”. TWU has a very extensive Code of Conduct. One of its provisions (among many, many others) is the prohibition of homosexual activity. It was insinuated that because of this provision, teachers who had been trained at TWU would tend to discriminate against homosexual students. TWU appealed the matter to the courts. Eventually reaching the Supreme Court of Canada, the decision was that TWU graduates should be accredited, but also that the TWU graduates should be monitored very closely in subsequent years for possible signs of homophobia.

Now, TWU has attempted to launch a law school. However, the lawyers’ professional bodies in a number of provinces (including Ontario) have refused to accept that TWU law school graduates can practice law in that province, as TWU’s Code of Conduct is allegedly “homophobic” and “discriminatory”.

The situation for sincerely-believing Christians is especially difficult in Canada because – unlike in the United States – there is no effective “counter-culture” of Christianity – which in the United States includes both fundamentalist Protestants and tradition-minded Catholics. Obviously, it is also much different than in Poland where – regardless of some secular legal aspects – the country is permeated by a very deep Catholic and Christian culture and history.

Sincerely-believing Christians in Canada tend to be highly isolated, and to lack a comforting and reassuring sense of community. In the former East Bloc, there was a dynamic of attraction to the Christian churches as profound critics of the system. In Canada today, however, the general population is set in a direction by the mass media and mass education structures, where they would tend to typically perceive fervent Christians as “bigots” or “haters”. Indeed, the current-day system in Canada appears to move in the direction of a startling unidirectional intensity, to which there can be seen very few possible countervailing tendencies. Thus, the lineaments of an emerging “soft-totalitarianism” can be perceived here, despite Canada’s cherished claims to be “the most free” and “the most democratic” society on the planet.


Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher.

View from the North: Resisting “soft-totalitarianism” in Canada?