30 December 2006

Matters of Life and Death: capital punishment in the world

Should the state have the right to execute a human being, for crimes of murder, treason, trafficking, mutiny, genocide, or whatever other heinous offence in law? The state's right to deny life was questioned by Milanese writer and academic Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) in his famous abolitionist treatise, Dei delitti e delle pene (Of crimes and punishments,1764), calling for rational reform in the law. His influence, directly or indirectly, led to the Leopoldine Code of 1786 in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany where, for the first time in Europe (and possibly the world) the death penalty was abolished.
In the map above, countries in blue have no death penalty. It exists in the red zones. Others either make limited use of it, or have not in practice had executions for several years. As of 1977 sixteen countries including Canada had eliminated capital punishment; by the end of 2005 the number had grown to 122 (either completely, or for the most part), while 68 countries retained it. The latter, however, include the most populous countries, so that a majority in the world live under authority that can take life.
In the United States twelve states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty, nor do numerous American territories abroad. Michigan abolished it as far back as 1846.
Canada removed the death penalty from the Criminal Code in 1976, and from the National Defence Act (where it remained for military offences, treason, and mutiny) in 1998.
Amnesty International is on record as opposed to capital punishment, along with a world-wide coalition of abolitionists who try to monitor trials for abuses of human rights.
The European Union mandates no death penalty as condition of membership.
Show trials and gruesome executions in Iraq can only enhance profound unease in that country, and elsewhere in the world. Blood vengeance by the state is not an acceptable solution in the modern world.

29 December 2006

The Queen, Diana, affairs of state, and plausible fiction

The Queen (UK, 2006)
dir. Stephen Frears
rating: ✶✶✶

Clever writing and skilful montage of news clips create an unlikely, yet reasonably successful film about the tense week in September, 1997 when the body of Diana, Princess of Wales was returned to England for burial. Diana's celebrity pop status won out in the end over protocol, and a reluctant Queen accorded the honour of state funeral to the divorced and disruptive mother of the princes. The look at what was going on behind the scenes at Balmoral and Downing Street is plausible fiction, and an excuse to consider the role of symbolic monarchy and tradition in the modern democratic state, not unsympathetically. Helen Mirren in the leading role is quite brilliant, credible, restrained and ultimately human (as well as a remarkable likeness to the original). Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair is also excellent in his portrayal of fresh young energy in public life, with a clear sense of nation, and its swift changing dynamics (another close look-alike). Other roles are less important, occasionally muddled, and sometimes biased. Younger supernumeraries on the scene add contrast as smart-ass irreverent sceptics, and the film suggests a deeper crisis of monarchy than probably in reality occurred. Ultimately, in any case, the nation appears to overcome whatever trauma there was, with institutions and Her Majesty comfortably intact.

06 December 2006

The History Boys

The History Boys
(UK, 2006)
dir. Nicholas Hytner
rating: ✶✶✶✶✶

Based on Alan Bennett's excellent 2004 play, and with the original stage cast, the engaging and well-acted film covers the story of a class of eight high-spirited, very bright boys at a grammar school in Sheffield preparing to sit entrance examinations for Oxford and Cambridge. In part a coming-of-age saga, it touches on sexuality both of students and teachers, the education system, English class structure, and the meaning of learning. It succeeds in being both comic and, at times, profoundly moving. A sub-theme on homosexuality further enhances the film's insights into the lives of students and masters alike in the evolving social context of the 1980's.