Entries from January 1998

Our Taste For Saccharine-style Music Enough To Make You Cry

David Frum January 31st, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Sometimes the small newspaper stories tell us more about reality than the big ones. Take this little news bulletin from London for example: According to a survey by the Independent newspaper, Elton John’s rewrite of ‘Candle in the Wind’ for the death of Princess Diana has become the single most played song at British funerals. It replaced two previous favorites — no, not ‘Abide with Me’ and Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G’, but instead Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’.

The Independent survey, it should be noted, did not use scientific sampling techniques and so its conclusions are not absolutely reliable. But they are not implausible: after all, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997′ has sold an amazing 35 million copies since it was released last summer.

I must confess to finding this tidbit both baffling and sad. I find it baffling because — while I know that millions of otherwise sensible people take pleasure in Elton John’s weepy ballad — I cannot begin to understand what that pleasure can be. The song is made up of equal parts sugar and grease, like a bad doughnut.

And I find it sad because, even if you somehow manage to enjoy the song as a song (and lots of people do like doughnuts), ‘Candle in the Wind’ is so miserably out of place at a funeral. ‘Your candle’s burned out long before your legend ever will.’ One would think mourners burying a relative or friend would want music that connects them not to the cult of celebrity but to what is loftiest and best in in human beings, that asserts we are not merely walking heaps of dust; that there is something imperishable in every human soul. That’s why we used to play the great musical classics or else the ancient hymns of our faiths at funerals. One would think about the last thing anybody would be in the mood for, as he or she says goodbye to a loved one, is the icky, gluey stuff they play on Lite FM.

Wrong again, Davey-boy. That turns out to be exactly what people want. And Elton John has a mansion in the English countryside to prove it.

Let me try an audacious explanation of why ‘Candle in the Wind’ has come to have such intense meaning to so many people. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the old monarch sets his tragedy into motion by asking his three daughters how much they love him. The two bad daughters, Regan and Goneril, lavish upon him one overripe compliment after another (‘Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty ‘ ‘A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable ‘), and they are loaded down with lavish rewards. The one good daughter, Cordelia, replies in sensible, sincere language – and is promptly cut out of the old man’s will.

As king, Lear has been heaped with flattery, that he has forgotten how people who bear each other genuine affection actually speak. Real love seems cold and stark compared to the lush extravagance of falsehood. A lifetime of listening
to lies has deafened Lear to the sound of truth.

Isn’t that our modern problem? We are as accustomed to the fulsome, saccharine style of music epitomized by ‘Candle in the Wind’ as King Lear was accustomed to sycophantic compliments. That music is piped into our offices, into the corridors through which we walk, the restaurants in which we eat, and the stores in which we shop. We hear it when we step into an elevator or are put on hold on the telephone. This Lite FM stuff has, for millions of us, genuinely become — as the commercials for radio stations say – ‘the music of our lives.’

And what this music offers is cheap, immediate and yet simultaneously shallow emotionalism. I’ve had to listen to more of it than I like to remember, and what I’m always struck by is the enormous range of human experience it pays no
attention to. I’m not talking about the lyrics (impoverished though they always are), but the music itself. It’s good at conveying the overwrought passion we think romantic love will be like before we actually experience it. (‘Oh,
eye-uh-eye-uh-eye will ul-weeez luv yoooooo,’ as Whitney Houston puts it.) But it’s bad at summoning up the steadfastness that characterizes the love grownups feel, and that pulls us to the gravesides of our friends and kin.

Can there be anyone whose life means so little it deserves no keener grief than the easy and unmeaning tears evoked by Elton John’s awful song? Better to do as the Quakers used to do, and bury our dead in silence, than to bury them to the
empty sentimentality of ‘Candle in the Wind’.

Originally published in The Financial Post

How Roe Vs. Wade Changed Our Lives

David Frum January 20th, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Canada is like a jelly fish: its vital organs are outside its own body. Peter Brimelow made that observation in his great study of Canada,  The Patriot Game. What he meant was the most important events in Canada’s intellectual and cultural life occur outside Canada — usually in the U.S. On Jan. 22, we observe the 25th anniversary of one of the most important of those exterior events: the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in its famous abortion case, Roe vs. Wade.

I’m not going to belabor you with the familiar arguments about the rights and wrongs of abortion (although it is sobering to think that one out of every four U.S. pregnancies ends in abortion, according to the U.S. National Centre for
Health Statistics). What’s important for Canadians about
Roe vs. Wade is not what it did to abortion in the U.S., but what it did to the law in Canada.

Roe introduced a new approach to human rights into U.S. law; an approach we copied, utterly uncritically, when we
adopted our Charter of Rights & Freedoms in 1982. It might fairly be said that
Roe vs. Wade is the foundation of Canadian constitutional law.

The Roe decision did two startling things. First, it created a fundamental human right out of thin air. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted after the Civil War, forbids states to abridge anyone’s ‘life, liberty or property’ without ‘due process of law.’ At the time of the Roe decision, that sentence was generally understood to mean a state could not do something bad to you unless it met certain standards of procedural fairness: it could not jail you, for example, without a fair trial.

Roe reinterpreted the amendment. Instead of meaning the state must provide due process before abridging the citizen’s
liberty, the amendment was now read to mean there were certain liberties that could never be abridged — no matter how fair a process the state provided.

But which liberties? After all, the most important liberties — speech, religion, assembly, the vote, private property — were already protected by the explicit language of the U.S. Constitution. And this brings us to the second startling
Roe did. It redirected the attention of the courts to an entire new field of human behavior: sex, marriage and the family.

For most of its first 200 years, the U.S. Constitution was understood to have nothing to say about these intimate matters. A state could outlaw adultery, fornication and sodomy if it wanted to (and most of them did). A state could
choose to tax unmarried persons more heavily than married (and most of them did). A state could choose to forbid illegitimate children to inherit if their father died without a will (and most of them did). These might be sound policies or they might be foolish, but they were left up to the democratic majority within each state. If you disagreed with one of these laws, it was your obligation to persuade your fellow citizens to alter them. There was no point asking the courts for help. They would say to you: nothing in the constitution prevents a state from adopting an adultery law or favoring married people over unmarried. And if the constitution doesn’t stop a state from doing something, then the state may. We are here to enforce the law. We are not here to function as nannies to the electorate, slapping their hands whenever they reach for something that isn’t good for them.

Roe vs. Wade changed all that. Suddenly the vague word ‘liberty’ in the 14th Amendment was not so vague any more: it
was a charter of power to the courts to strike down any state-imposed restrictions on individual sexual conduct. With
Roe, U.S. judges assumed sweeping new powers — the power to strike down laws on the basis of abstract principles, rather than the language of the constitution. Second, it reoriented judges away from their concern with such liberties as speech, religion and private property to a new preoccupation with sexuality.

Both these changes hit Canada with special force. Our judges are even more willing than U.S. judges to strike down laws because they ‘offend basic principles of justice’ — even if they do not offend any specific provision of our Constitution. And they have attacked traditional sexual norms even more zealously than U.S. judges, while turning their backs even more blatantly to the protection of ancient rights like property and speech. And when they do both, it is Roe vs. Wade that inspires them.

In the U.S., the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade will be an important event. Here it will pass largely unmarked. Yet
we, even more than the Americans, are ruled by it.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Israeli PM Unfairly Cast As Villain

David Frum January 6th, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

DATELINE: Portugal.

The first leader in the country’s history to be chosen in a wide-open democratic election is fighting for his political life, after the chief of a small and notoriously patronage-hungry faction within the governing coalition resigned to protest the leader’s free-market economic reforms.

How would the international press cover that story? It’s a good bet that (if they paid attention at all), they would take the leader’s part.

But of course, this story didn’t occur in Portugal. It is happening in Israel. Foreign Minister David Levy is the faction leader and Benjamin Netanyahu — the first directly elected prime minister in Israeli history — is the leader desperately struggling to hold his government together. And so, this story is being covered with Levy cast as the hero and Netanyahu as the villain. No surprise there. There are few heads of government in the world who get worse press than Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why should this be? We all know the answer to that one: It is because Netanyahu – first as leader of the opposition to the Rabin-Peres government, and then as prime minister himself — has dared to question the merits of the so-called
peace process with the Palestinians. That process has inspired such fervent devotion in the U.S., Canadian, European and Israeli press that Netanyahu’s qualms have come to be seen as a form of heresy; and Netanyahu himself as the
principal obstacle to Middle Eastern peace.

Just a few days ago, however, there was printed in the unlikeliest source a refreshing dissent from the usual anti-Netanyahu rock-throwing. Ha’Aretz is the leading liberal newspaper in Israel, a staunch supporter of the Labor Party and the Oslo peace process. On Dec. 26, it printed a remarkable essay by Ari Shavit, a former member of the dovish group Peace Now and a professional journalist. (You can read an English language version of it in the archive on the paper’s Web site).

On behalf of his fellow liberals and journalists, Shavit asked a direct question: Why do we hate Netanyahu so much? After all, the sainted Yitzhak Rabin and the beloved Shimon Peres used greater brutality in both Lebanon and the West Bank than Netanyahu has ever done. And many more Israelis lost their lives to terrorist violence under Rabin than have died under Netanyahu. Altogether, ’Benjamin Netanyahu bears responsibility for less bloodshed and less harm to
human rights than the two patrons of peace who occupied the prime minister’s chair before him.’

So, Shavit then asks, is Netanyahu hated because he is (as he is so often accused of being) disdainful of democracy? Oops. It wasn’t his government that ‘hastily and recklessly adopted irreversible historic decisions with blatant disregard for proper procedure, not bothering to take into account the feelings of half the country, only bothering to receive Knesset approval after the fact.’ That was the sainted Rabin and Peres governments, which committed Israel to the Oslo peace process — the most important decision of the past 25 years — without even the courtesy of a vote in Parliament, much less a referendum. Rabin and Peres omitted those democratic niceties precisely because they feared (with good reason, as it turned out) the Israeli public would never vote in favor of the creation of a Palestinian mini-state an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.

And ’as for ourselves,’ Shavit says on behalf of the Israeli peace movement, ‘we simply remained silent. We did not feel [then] that proper procedure and fair democratic rules and proper public debate were so important.’

Shavit happens to dislike Netanyahu pretty fiercely himself. But he refuses to blink the truth about the man’s election which is, ‘it was not the rise of Mr. Netanyahu that brought on the paralysis of Oslo, but the paralysis of Oslo that
brought on the rise of Mr. Netanyahu.’ If the Palestinians had followed up that famous Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 by unequivocally accepting Israel’s right to exist, by cracking down on terrorism
within their new territories and by honoring their treaty commitments — then Labor would have been re-elected in 1995, and the peace process would be humming happily along.

But the Palestinians did not honor those commitments. By their own actions, they discredited the peace process in the eyes of the Israeli public. That’s why the government of Israel — no matter who ends up in charge of it — will not be
making many more Rabin-style unilateral concessions in the name of peace.

Originally published in The Financial Post