John Baglow

Margo's sour grapes

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Stealth Catholic Margaret Somerville is a little late to the party, but today she writes, for some reason, about the Order of Canada--no doubt whistling innocently over her keyboard.

In the "interests of transparency," she lets us know upfront that she received "such an award" herself (actually the Order of Australia) and was turned down 17 years later for an Order of Canada. Then she launches into a sociobiological explanation for human hierarchies, which might lull us momentarily into thinking that she is tackling the subject in a disinterested manner.

But no such luck. Halfway through the article, she begins to probe, none too delicately, the award of an Order of Canada to Dr. Henry Morgentaler. She does so in the form of an interrogation: How are such awards given? Who decides? What values do they hold?

"How does the motto 'They desire a better Canada' apply in the case of contested values, as is the case for abortion?" she asks. But just how contested are those values? And in any case, surely the "contest" here is whether the award itself was justified. We've had some polling at this point, and two-thirds of Canadians approve of the award to Dr. Morgentaler. So much for the "powerful disagreement" that Somerville invokes.

"[I]f unity of Canadians is a goal of the honour, as it's reported the prime minister believes, Dr. Morgentaler's award has been spectacularly unsuccessful," she goes on. The smell of a dead red herring is here overwhelming. "Unity of Canadians" is not a criterion for the award. Who cares what Stephen Harper thinks? And if this criterion did apply, what of Brian Mulroney? Jean Chrétien? Conrad Black? None of these last are uncontroversial. In fact, I venture to suggest that one or two of them might be more controversial than the good doctor.

Does the award mean that "as a society we celebrate and approve of both the person honoured and their conduct" that merited it? she asks. "It's one thing, sadly and regretfully, to allow abortion, quite another to celebrate it." One can just see her wagging her finger at the selection committee. But (how often must we keep repeating this), abortion isn't being celebrated here: one man's heroic effort on behalf of women's right to choose is.

Somerville appears to struggle for balance:

Does this mean awards should be given only to candidates of whom everyone approves or, at least, no one publicly disapproves? Would that diminish the award and make it meaningless? Is that fair or unfair? Would it make people reticent to speak "their truth" as they see it?

But as we shall see, there's method in it. After all, Somerville herself has her critics, and she speaks "her truth" with no reticence at all.

"Is it unacceptable to use the award to further certain political goals or specific ideologies, as is true of Dr. Morgentaler's supporters?" Careful, Margo: that loaded question might go off. But perhaps you might re-load and aim at, say, Sister Suzanne Stubbs, for example.

And then the outright griping starts: "Do principles of fairness and equity apply in deciding who is honoured or don't they apply because awards involve the distribution of privileges, not the fulfilling of rights?"

Wow. It's all in there, isn't it? The snarl-word "privilege." The implication that "fairness and equity" played no part in the Morgentaler award--or in her own rejection.

There is no easy answer about what to do. It could range from abolishing such honours or, its opposite, giving them to vastly more people (the next generation, who all get prizes at school so no one is left out, might take that approach), both of which I believe are bad ideas. Other options include making the award more transparent and democratic and ensuring the widest possible diversity of Canadians are recognized, or retaining the current system and trying to modify it where it seems unfair or inadequate.

Let's parse this a bit, shall we?

"[N]o easy answer about what to do." Who says anything has to be done? What's wrong with the current process?What an unsubtle gambit from a nimble moral philosopher like Somerville. She uses it to introduce possible solutions to a non-existent problem.

Getting rid of the Order or giving it to "vastly more people" are quickly rejected. Then there's "making the award more transparent and democratic...ensuring the widest possible diversity..." three sweet purr-words used to imply something shady about the Morgentaler decision. Transparency! Democracy! Diversity! Who could oppose those?

But wait. Diversity? For every Morgentaler, there's an Emmett Carter. For every Brian Mulroney, there's a
Jean Chrétien. For every Brent Hawkes, there's an Otto Tucker. For every Ernie Regehr there's a Charles Foulkes. What more diversity could Somerville want--other, of course, than her own inclusion?

Transparency? We know how the decision was made, who supported it on the committee and who did not, who the members of the committee are, and how they are appointed. Democracy? Most Canadians thought Morgentaler's award was justified. What does Somerville propose for future candidates--a referendum?

But here, in a barely comprehensible, cryptic closing paragraph, Somerville hints at what's really on her mind:

To conclude, there is a tension between standing out enough to merit an OC and not standing out so much, at least for the "wrong" reasons, as not to merit it. This brings to mind a popular Japanese proverb. The proverb states, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." It's intended to promote the value, a primary one in Japanese society, of conformity. But as one commentator shows, we need to be aware that different lenses on a situation can provide different insights. He rephrases the proverb: "The nail that sticks out sometimes ... stays sitting down."

To avoid the inevitable jarring images of sitting on protruding nails, let me help the reader out with the last bit. The source is here. It appears that some Japanese schoolteachers were punished not long ago for refusing to stand when the Japanese national anthem was played. They were apparently demonstrating their opposition to the militarism and nationalism that continues to afflict that country more than sixty years after WWII.

I think it's pretty clear that Somerville thinks she has been passed over for an Order of Canada for the "wrong" reasons. She has bravely refused to go along with the pro-choice majority, the same-sex marriage majority, the majority that almost inevitably stands on the opposite moral shore from her own. At some point in the future, her refusal to stand with all the others might just be recognized, and an obvious error of omission rectified.

Of course, Henry Morgentaler and his supporters were once in a minority as well. Dr. Morgentaler stood, not for abortion, as Somerville claims, but for the right of women to choose their reproductive destinies. He was imprisoned, ill-treated while there, denied parole, hounded by a spectacular abuse of legal process--but he, and countless Canadian women, eventually triumphed.

He made a real difference. He desired a better Canada, and he put his body on the line for it. He paid the price for his convictions, and that price was oftentimes a heavy one. Comparisons are odious, I know--but what has Somerville done that comes remotely close to that? How would her vigorous advocacy of turning back the clock qualify her for the highest honour in the land?

I think the Order of Canada selection committee has already answered that question.

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This page contains a single entry by John Baglow published on July 16, 2008 10:34 AM.

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