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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
In all the current hoopla about coalition governments, parliamentary prorogations, and economic crises, the one word that's being used with alarming frequency on all sides and about all matters, is "unprecedented". What, as they say, is up with that?

I don't like using the word "rhetoric" in this way, but for the sake of clarity I'll just say that the current use of the U-word is a very obvious piece of political rhetoric. It's being used in both subtly hypnotic and heavy-handed ways.

Whether it's the coalition's co-leaders talking about Harper's unprecedented move to prorogue parliament, or Harper talking about the unprecedented formation of the Liberal-NDP coalition and its attempt to "overturn the results" of the last election, or any pundit, panel-discussion member or political economist talking about the unprecedented global economic crisis, the word is used, consciously or not, to induce fear and confusion.

A major part of getting people on your side is getting them whipped up into an inarticulate panic. "Unprecedented" does this nicely. It suggests a situation of chaotic uncertainty, of totally uncharted waters. And in such a situation you need the "right people" to take charge and weather the storm properly, because only they know how. That's what you do: tell everybody the situation is unprecedented and that you, as it so happens, have the uniquely appropriate solution.

"Unprecedented" suggests that history is empty, that it can't help guide us. In fact, not much in the current situation in parliament is unprecedented: we had a coalition government during the First World War; proroguing parliament happens after every session (though, of course, using it to avoid a confidence vote is uniquely sneaky); and we've seen many recessions and one big depression in the last century.

"Unprecedented", as it's being used now, quickly wipes the historical slate clean. And once that memory is gone, well, anyone can suggest anything at anytime, and they can expect no "precedent" to be used against those suggestions because, of course, it's all "unprecedented". It lets you get away with saying just about anything. And this all fits in with our age of "solutioneering", of devising ultra-new, never-tried-before solutions to supposedly new and never-seen-before problems, like recessions, which we've actually seen lots of.

For myself, I don't see anything so unusual in any of this. History is full of ups and downs, crisis and stability, people going for power and others defending theirs.

In all the polarized debating over the coalition's democraticness (or lack thereof), or the democraticness (or not) of Harper's move, the one attitude I find most repellent - and undemocratic - is the one that goes, "All the politicians are wrong. They just sit around and argue like children. They're all the same."

I say that this attitude is undemocratic because if you don't think politicians have any scruples, well, you don't really believe in democracy, at least not in the only one we have. And incidentally, this is the attitude - the passive, easy attitude - that both hardcore left-wingers and hardcore right-wingers have in common. That is, both anarchism-loving hippies and hard-headed businesspeople hate all things government. They both see politics as inherently inefficient and infected beyond all hope by corruption, greed, and power-hungry pencil pushers.

All that said, this is a tumultuous and exciting time in politics, here, south of the border, and all around the world. Perhaps, what with an upcoming Obama White House, a potential coaltion government here in Canada, and a refreshingly leftist city hall in Vancouver, we'll see the Age of Terror turn into something a little less dramatic and a little more stable and genuinely democratic. Things change, after all. It's happened before. Nothing about any of this is at all "unprecedented".



The truism that "history repeats itself" doesn't trump the need of the word precedent. In this coalition, such a word is needed. The easy way for me to prove this would be to go into the bare bones of what the 1917 coalition you referred to entailed and what the current coalition is asking for. But since you're article was more philosophical and macroscopic I'll try to attack you on this more general level.

Things have changed from a century ago, lots of things. If this is obvious, then the idea
that you had to go back 90 years to find a precedent of similar action should be just as clearly doubtful of being a precedent. We can throw in the idea that we're not in a World War anymore, but also the idea that all the coalition of 1917 did was give more power to Prime Minister Borden and, unlike today, did not mean that we'd either have an overthrow of the elected PM. The similarity to today is that the party itself changed. I have problems with debates that go back to the World Wars, maybe because I have a short-attention span or maybe because most of the vets from that era are now gone. But mostly, it's for the reason that times change drastically every centennial. In general terms, people can argue anything has a spurrious correlation with something else. In my philosophy classes, whenever someone wants to talk about how people can "act evil" as a collective they have to go back to Nazis. Yes, we should not forget of their crimes and actions. But do we really need to go back to the World War to find a precedent? If we haven't had a Hitler for a 100 years then I'd say we're doing alright. I think that whoever argues such debates would have an easier time convincing me that people can act bad as a group if they cite for example, the Rwandan genocide as an example... but people rarely do. To bring this argument to an extreme, if I wanted to talk about say the "Oedipal complex," I don't go back to Oedipal himself to give an example. Nor do I go to anyone that was around him because the argument could just as easily be.."well those were different times." Now with that in mind, if we go back to the last 50 years or so of people voting in Canada..where we now have blacks, women and others voting.. we can see that any precedent that a post-election coalition would occur has been erased from people's minds. Thus, such a coalition is arguably not really expected at the voter booth.

Even if I was to accept your argument on the word "unprecedented" being misused, your summary of the conservative side is misrepresented. You wrote, "That's what you do: tell everybody the situation is unprecedented and that you, as it so happens, have the uniquely appropriate solution." That may be one strategy people use, but the conservatives did not use this strategy. A better argument would have been if you said that they argued that "since such action is unprecedented it is better to not forego such action." That's not proposing a unique action, that's merely inhibiting any new action.

However, there are talks that Harper may close parliament. If he does that, then he's responding to an unprecedented democratic action with one which is clearly undemocratic (regardless of whether it has precedence.)



Just to be clear (and brief, since I don't have the time right now), I don't just link the use of the U-word the Conservatives, but, as you rightly point out, macroscopically, generally.

More to come...

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