Democracy and Musical Chairs

By Don Berner

Democracy is eternally unfinished. Change for the better happens in incremental steps, as we slowly but constantly move toward the betterment of society. This happens at all levels of government and many feel at too monolithic a pace. How often have we heard outcries of “How did this happen?”, and “Something needs to be done!”. To believe that we can attain some sort of societal perfection displays both an overly exalted view of mankind and an egregious naiveté. Focus needs to be shifted away from “Solving the problem” and towards what small improvements can happen right now?

To think we will become an enlightened society is unrealistic. It belies human nature and nature itself. To think we know all the outcomes in any given scenario is unrealistic. Sometimes something that seems bad can turn out good and vice versa.

Focusing on massive policy shift to satisfy a personal sense of justice is not good long term.

Take the recent example in Alberta politics of Danielle Smith’s political defection. If, perchance, you’ve been the one person living under a rock in Canada the last several weeks, you may not be aware that the leader of the Wildrose party, Alberta’s official opposition crossed the floor on December 17, 2014, alongside several of her party members, joining the reigning Progressive Conservatives and leaving her party all but depleted. There has been a massive outcry for a mechanism by which a recall election can be held, with party members and supporting voters feeling personally betrayed. This is both a futile and terrifying idea.

Now, please bear in mind I’m not personally a fan of either the Wild Rose or the PC party’s policies and political cultures. That’s neither here nor there. Had this occurred between two parties I more closely identify with, the principle would remain. The whole point of having a democratically elected government is so that all viewpoints may be represented and we may have discussion in addition to governance, allowing for people to change their viewpoints if they are convinced to do so. People’s outcry for a recall with the Wildrose MLAs is antithetical to democracy. There is wisdom in our election process and there is an opportunity for reelection or ensuing defeat. We must allow our representatives to be answerable to their conscience. To do otherwise is as ineffective and expensive as direct democracy, allowing for a recall every time one of our elected officials makes a decision we disagree with.

Primarily, my columns will contain commentary and insights into how policy and music in Canada affect one another, Canadian musical activity and its societal role, and some of the political and societal realities of the music industry. But I thought I’d start this feature with a bit of a broader viewpoint. Before getting into how specific issues affect you (And they ALL do), I thought rather that I’d draw a broad parallel between Jazz and Democracy. Jazz is a good model for democracy according to Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis is right. Everyone performing has input and it’s eternally unfinished. A Jazz solo can be both perfect and still have something that can be improved upon. Classical music is totalitarianism. Once set upon the page, the notes may be interpreted within somewhat open guidelines, but the opportunity for a massive or minute shift in direction doesn’t exist. Jazz musicians begin as they mature to realize, that massive shifts in direction are not always good. They begin to develop higher problem solving skills than the norm, a greater understanding of a more complete whole, rather than focusing on their personal desires, and a greater understanding of democracy and adaptation, improvisation, and creative solutions. Research into some of music’s effects on the brain can be perused in “This is your Brain on Music” (Daniel J. Levitin-Plume/Penguin), as well as jazz specifically, by simply googling “This is your Brain on Jazz” and reading the studies performed at Johns Hopkins University on their own website.

Winton Marsalis
Winton Marsalis

Democracy and Jazz are both (and should remain) “The Never Ending Battle”, always having ongoing dialogue about how to improve. Quick and easy solutions in democracy tend to work about as well as shortcuts in Jazz. To affect punitive measures against the floor crossing MLAs and hold a by-election would signal a major shift in democratic policy in Alberta, and not for the better. If, come election time, their constituents would still like to see the former Wildrose members removed from power, the voters have the opportunity to remove them at that time.

So rather than concerning ourselves with changing policy in this case (or in any other wherein we are “Fixing the problem – FOR ALL TIME…”), here are some small steps you can take right now to effect change in a fashion that is democratic (As well as some glib comments about how to use these suggestions to improve the state of the music industry).

  1. Contact your MLA. If you are a constituent of one of the “Wildrose 9”, find out what their reasoning was. You may be surprised to find you agree with it. The media shapes and simplifies our perceptions and it’s better to have a depth of understanding. If you’re not within one of those ridings – contact your MLA anyway (If you’re in Alberta and not sure who that is, try this). Find out what their views are on issues that are important to you. And while you’re at it suggest they institute provincial liquor law stating that all licensed venues must have a band…
  2. Evaluate your own positions. Is your fealty to a specific party or to specific principles? What positions do you want to see taken on each and every issue and who most effectively reflects that? Also… Do you like Swing or Bebop? And why?
  3. Research your candidates. If you’ve already contacted them, see if their actions have lined up with their stated positions. Volunteer for the next election and become an active part of the process. Also, mention to the candidate you vote for that you want to see a live band at their victory party…
  4. Start thinking in a fashion that’s democratic rather than partisan. Blind faith in a branding exercise never helped anyone. Also-go buy an album off an indie label…

Aristotle said “Integrity requires us to honour truth above our friends”. Think bigger than soundbites about getting to the bottom of problems, take action tomorrow that holds your elected officials accountable in a reasonable way within the system and don’t buy into any solution that will eternally fix any problem in society. Anyone offering those sorts of solutions is buying your vote with another sort of coin.

One comment on “Democracy and Musical Chairs

  1. Great start to what will no doubt be a series of fascinating posts. Don writes with passion and humor and his “glibness” I would prefer any day over the loquacious “truths” of other writers on these kinds of subjects. I look forward to reading much much more.

    That being said, I do find it kind of amusing that Don says: “To think we will become an enlightened society is unrealistic. It belies human nature and nature itself.” This is followed by “to think we know all the outcomes in any given scenario is unrealistic…”

    Philosophically, he has just directly contradicted himself, as he states with total certainty that he knows for sure ALL/ the sole outcome(s) of thinking we will become an enlightened society (“unrealistic).” This does not consider all the outcomes of thinking we will become an enlightened society, as a “mostly enlightened” (99.999%) society is also a possible outcome for thinking we will achieve 100% enlightenment – the tiny margin negating the whole? The drive to believe and its outcome(s) contain multiple variables not considered in the totality of Don’s “unrealistic thinking” belied by human nature and nature itself…which is clearly a historical claim (backed by millennia of brutality). The future will be as brutal as we choose it to be.

    But as we collectively have neither defined, nor possibly ever will define, what is an “enlightened society” that ALL humans can agree on, Don (though omitting this qualification) rightfully questions the drive towards this amorphous enlightenment, and suggests direct action: Utopias areas are as much dystopias from even a tiny parallax.

    Don’s inadvertent “totalitarian” knowledge of what humans can/will/should/should not think about enlightenment is really an underlaying desire to see life made better for Albertans and jazz musicians.

    We need more Albertans (and Canadians) like Don….


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