Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Arguable: the toniest weasel word in politics

"Argument" is the lifeblood of democracy and science. However, the adjective "arguable" and the pleasing-to-the-ear adverb "arguably" can poison both.

Each qualifier flashes green and simultaneously flashes red: What I’m about to say may be plausible (or implausible), reasoned (or arbitrary).

English-speaking politicians already prone to indirection have taken up both with glee. They can utter crude, paranoid, and wild ideas without sounding like populists or American Republicans. In a speech, the words imply deliberation and perspective and can invite you to put down your guard and go along.

For brevity, for truth — and more productive argument — let’s cough every time an office-seeker or an incumbent slides one in front of a seemingly bold declarative sentence.

We already have "Let’s be clear" and "Frankly" in our BS detector kits — their aim is to skirt messy facts and give pretested platitudes an air of audacity and spontaneity. 

Even Canada’s Green Party leader Elizabeth May can make mischief, showing us how the word "arguable" permits a speaker to be utterly extravagant, reportable, and worthy of scholarly attention at the same time. Here’s the way the McGillREPORTER publication headlined her lecture to an audience of truth-seekers last week at that distinguished Montreal university:

“’It’s arguable that we now live in a dictatorship, punctuated by manipulated elections,’ says Elizabeth May.”

If the weather hadn’t turned bad again, I’d let it pass. Certainly, taking objection to portentous utterances by Elizabeth May isn’t something even-tempered Canadians normally risk. Nevertheless, May offers a timely reminder: Idealism and imprecision can be dangerous helpmates.

In an interview after her lecture, she doubled-down, enumerating the “symptoms” of our dictatorial habitat: low voter turnout, a “less than vital” Fourth Estate, media concentration, public apathy and cynicism, excessive power in the PMO, the underutilization of Members of Parliament, and too much power in the hands of unelected partisan officials.

Historically, constitutionally, culturally, and terminologically, her characterization of our national governance is farfetched and, more importantly, unreasonable — whether we like or loathe Stephen Harper. Indeed, she’d have been more credible if she’d got personal about the behavior of Stephen Harper, rather than deprecated our representative democracy.

May would like to convince Canadians to support proportional representation; others favor preferential ballots, formal recall procedures, or the status quo. I’d like an elected Senate. All of us want to reform our political system. However, we’re not — even in our dreams — freedom fighters opposing a “dictatorship.”

The worrisome bits about the PMO and her complaints about journalism and young people are old hat and circumstantial. They are the things recent losers say about recent winners, the unpersuasive about the more persuasive.

Her modish concerns go back to the '60s and '70s. (I used to ghost indignant speeches for Progressive Conservative backbenchers about closure rules, charisma, shallow television news, and Pierre Trudeau’s “airtight helm”.) Harper’s majority “dictatorship” of 2011 was elected by a higher turnout of voters than was Chretien’s third majority “dictatorship” of 2000. And today’s charismatic politician is still considerable distant from the reins of power.

Today’s “dictatorship” has as many excellent reasons to worry about losing the next election as any other incumbent in Canada’s past and in any democracy on the globe today that, conceivably, meets May’s standards. Further, on a weekly basis, Harper’s PMO must be prepared to justify its actions and public standing to a majority of Members of Parliament, if not Elizabeth May, and it must attempt to govern according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — to the satisfaction of an independent Supreme Court.

Arguably a dictatorship? Please.

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