Not-so-dearly departed

Quote of the day:

Far too late for it to do anybody any good, Jesse Helms has died.

— Hendrik Hertzberg, who also gets off another couple of zingers at the late Helms’s expense.


It’s a wrap!

The Ottawa International Jazz Festival 2008 ended last weekend. I saw eighteen artists during the eleven-day festival. Top performances:

  1. Charlie Haden Quartet West. My review is here. And here’s an audio excerpt from the last (encore) song of the evening.

    Not the showiest piece of the evening, but it provides a taste of the remarkable talents of pianist Alan Broadbent and tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts.

  2. Herbie Hancock. Earlier comments here. Hancock and his colleagues displayed some serious musicianship, but ultimately this was simply the funnest concert of the festival.
  3. Buddy DeFranco. Reviewed here. Here are two excerpts mashed together:  first (after a few introductory bars), DeFranco’s clarinet accompanied by Neil Swainson’s bass; then (from a different song entirely), the clarinet with Bernie Senensky’s piano.

    You have to love clarinet music:  it manages to be relentlessly happy without becoming insipid. Remember, as you listen to the excerpt, that DeFranco (the clarinetist) is 85 years old. You’d never guess it!

  4. Nathalie Nadon. This was another fun evening. The bilingual Nadon alternated between English and French as she addressed her audience, in a manner that is familiar to residents of our bilingual city (but nonetheless amazing to unilingual me). Her songs likewise alternated between English and French lyrics, with a corresponding change of style, since French jazz has a different flavour than American jazz. Nadon was backed by a capable trio led by her pianist husband, Michael Banber.

    Having begun her career in musical theatre, Nadon seems to be launching a new career as a cabaret singer. She has a winsome stage presence:  as soon as she came onstage, I whispered to my daugher, “Oh, this is going to be fun!” I could tell just by looking at her.

    Nadon’s family and friends were present to buoy her up, and sometimes the evening unfolded like a kind of dress rehearsal. But she delivered the goods! It was a polished performance, approximately 90 minutes in length, made more enjoyable by Nadon’s contagious enthusiasm.

    My impression was, here is someone who is embarking on the fulfillment of a life-long dream. That made it an extra-special evening.

btw, I’m thinking of beginning a series of posts on jazz music. I am hardly an expert, but I’ve been exploring jazz for about a decade now. I suspect others may be in the same place I was ten years ago:  trying to figure out what’s good without having much prior exposure to the music. (To some extent, I’m still in the same place — there’s such a wealth of jazz to explore!)

The purpose of the series would be a kind of jazz introductory, written with the ordinary (non-specialist) listener in mind.

How activist courts safeguard democracy

Let me begin with a quote on same sex marriage:

For anyone to say that this is an issue for people who are gay and that this isn’t about civil rights is sadly mistaken. If you really believe in freedom and limited government, to be intellectually consistent and honest you have to oppose efforts of the majority to impose their will on people.

Ward Connerly, emphasis added; h/t Andrew Sullivan

Let me add that if you “really believe in freedom and limited government,” courts have a crucial role to play in preserving those values.

Courts are able to push back when governments overstep their limits. That’s what we mean when we speak of the “rule of law”, which is one of democracy’s fundamental principles. The rule of law means that Presidents and Prime Ministers can’t do whatever they please; they must operate within the Constitution and other legal bounds.

When politicians place a toe over the line, who enforces those limits? The courts do, if they’re functioning effectively. (Sometimes they’re asleep at the switch.)

This has important implications for how we define the word “democracy”. “Democracy” makes us think, first, of voters electing a government. And so it should. But “democracy” means more than that. It also encompasses important principles like the rule of law; and important values like freedom, including freedom from state control.

This brings me to an interesting exchange between nebcanuck and me on one of his recent posts. He commented that abortion was “legalized through a series of court processes rather than through any democratic political process.”

That accurately describes the history, both here in Canada and (earlier) in the USA. Nonetheless, I responded with the following point:

Some decisions should not be arrived at by majority vote because the majority can carelessly trample on the interests of minorities. The decision about same sex marriage is a case in point. That isn’t an issue that should be put to a vote, any more than you would tolerate a vote that would outlaw interracial marriages.

Nebcanuck replied:

When you argue that the majority would trample the rights of the minority, and thus the minority should be protected, you’re arguing against “true” or “pure” democracy.

If, by “democracy”, we mean making decisions by means of majority vote — OK, nebcanuck is right. And presumably that’s why nebcanuck qualifies his statement by referring to “true” or “pure” democracy.

But I think “democracy” means something more than that. As I said above, “democracy” also implies freedom of the individual from state control.

Abortion and same sex marriage are both problematic examples of my point. Abortion, for the obvious reason that there is another life at stake, which arguably justifies state intervention. Same sex marriage is also a problematic example, though the reasons are more complex.

For a clearer example, consider the treatment of U.S. detainees at Guantanamo Bay and similar sites. The detainee — perhaps an American citizen — is not formally charged with an offence. He is not permitted access to a lawyer or a judge. The detention is indefinite — he will be held until the state sees fit to release him, if ever. There are rumours that the detainee has been tortured, or at least subjected to harsh treatment.

Here we have an individual who has been deprived of his freedom; the state’s power over him is absolute.

The electorate has a role in safeguarding the detainee’s freedom. Voters can organize protests and seek to generate political pressure on the detainee’s behalf. If that should fail, they can vote the government out of office in the next election.

But what if the electorate shrugs and says, “Terrorists deserve to be tortured”? (Ignoring the fact that the detainee has not been convicted of anything — he is held because the state says it suspects him of something.) In such cases, it is not merely legitimate for courts to push back against the state; the courts are acting to preserve democracy when they intervene.

The Supreme Court in 2004 issued three decisions related to the detention of “enemy combatants,” including two that deal with U.S. citizens in military custody on American soil. … The decisions affirm the President’s powers to detain “enemy combatants,” including those who are U.S. citizens, as part of the necessary force authorized by Congress after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. However the Court appears to have limited the scope of individuals who may be treated as enemy combatants pursuant to that authority, and clarified that such detainees have some due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.


The point is this:  much-derided “activist” courts are actually an important bulwark of democracy.

Does that perspective hold true with respect to the relatively problematic examples of abortion and same sex marriage? Maybe.

The Obama two-step

Obama reaches out to evangelical voters via radio:

He has also pledged to continue, or even expand, federal funding for faith-based social programs:

Not only is Obama showing how faith would shape policy in his administration, he’s being so bold as to criticize Bush’s faith-based program for not going far enough in opening the federal social services spigot to churches and other faith-based groups. …

For Obama, who got his political start as an organizer in Chicago’s black churches, it’s difficult to argue that embracing government-sponsored faith-based initiatives is a matter of pure political convenience.

At the same time, it is well known that Obama is pro-choice on abortion. And he has been outspoken in support of equal rights for homosexuals:

As the Democratic nominee for President, I am proud to join with and support the LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] community in an effort to set our nation on a course that recognizes LGBT Americans with full equality under the law. That is why I support extending fully equal rights and benefits to same sex couples under both state and federal law. That is why I support repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and the passage of laws to protect LGBT Americans from hate crimes and employment discrimination. And that is why I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution [i.e., to prohibit same sex marriage], and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.

… Finally, I want to congratulate all of you who have shown your love for each other by getting married these last few weeks.

That is an eyebrow-raising two-step. I don’t think this is cynical politicking; both halves of the two-step reflect Obama’s personal convictions.

He stops short of outright support for same sex marriage. And that may be a bit of political positioning:  Obama knows that a lot of folks can accept equal rights for homosexuals as long as government draws the line at the “M” word.

Obama is hard to categorize. He draws the boundaries in unconventional places. He doesn’t play it safe. (Well, sometimes he does — but on occasion, he goes where other politicians wouldn’t dare.)

Love him or hate him, you have to admit he’s a fascinating character.

photo of Obama by Carlos Barria of Reuters

Morgentaler Honoured

In light of Canada Day, discussion of the recipients of the Order of Canada has been brought up on Amongst this year’s recipients there is a bit of a controversy surrounding one Dr. Morgentaler, the man who basically legalized abortion in Canada. From the site:

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean has named a leading abortion rights crusader as a member of the Order of Canada, news that has outraged anti-abortion groups.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler is one of 75 Canadians receiving honours for their contribution to the country. The Governor General announced the new inductees to the Order of Canada on Tuesday, after the names were recommended by an advisory panel.

However, the doctor isn’t unanimously hailed as a hero, unsurprisingly. This apparently was represented on the cabinet that put forth his name, as well, and one Alberta MP commented on that fact:

“This is a pretty divisive issue,” he said. “I think we can all agree on that, so why would we have the highest honour in the country being issued when there is obviously a strong difference of opinion about it?”

And to demonstrate his point, the strongly opposed spoke up:

“If Morgentaler had any integrity, he would refuse the medal,” Mary Ellen Douglas of the coalition said in a news release. “This presentation should be given to people who have made Canada a better place to live and the elimination of thousands of human beings who would have contributed to the future of Canada is a disgrace, not an honour.”

I must agree with the MP that it’s an unusual decision, considering the political tension over the affair. But then, the fact that the decision is being criticised for being “undemocratic” seems to follow with the entire process that has brought Morgentaler to this point, anyways.

The process, not entirely unlike the one in the States, saw abortion legalized through a series of court processes rather than through any democratic political process. To add to that, in Canada, judges are appointed, never elected… although the counter-argument would be that the top dogs (the Supreme Court) are chosen by the government, which, of course, is elected. Still, the issue of abortion has never been raised on a political front, since most candidates are wary of choosing a side… since either way they would likely loose approximately half of the electorate.

Still, it’s also amusing to hear the anti-abortion faction speaking out and saying that he should “have integrity” and refuse the award. There’s a disconnect here, which makes me wonder why their comments were chosen to represent the faction. They clearly fail to realize that Morgentaler believes that abortion is the higher moral that should be sworn by.

On that note, I’ll bring this to an end with one comment. In the film from which the image above was taken (Democracy on Trial), Morgentaler states during a trial that the young woman before him had no one to support her, and no money to feed herself, and so when she came to him he had to give her an abortion.

I think it’s pretty revealing when our solution has so very little to do with the problem itself, and the proposers of those solutions are hailed as national heroes (although the thought process in the mind of those selecting may be altogether different than Morgentaler’s).

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