Dictator, Stalinist, Nazi, Communist, Fascist

Sparked by recent events south of the border and the ease with which these terms seem to get thrown around I think is necessary to have a conversation about what these terms actually mean and why it probably is not such a good idea vis-a-vis the level of public discourse to hurl them around. Here is an intervention I made elsewhere when one of the commentators (whose interventions I generally like) referred to Harper as a dictator:

Yes XXXX, and all within the limits of parliamentary democracy and procedure. Sure there is some good degree of dishonesty on the torture file but it took an inquiry of how many years to get to the bottom of the liberal sponsorship fraud?

Terms like dictator have a rather precise meaning in political science. When you call Harper a dictator it sounds like tea-baggers calling Obama Stalinist. I do not disagree with you about the overall, shall we say, lack of reverence the Conservatives have shown both to our democratic processes and institutions but it hardly amounts to dictatorship. That does not make it OK, it just does not make it a dictatorship.

When you hear a coup has been launched; and the military is involved out on streets rounding up trade unionists and every other possible imaginable internal threat; and that the CBC has been shut down; and that parliament is closed; and that the coup leader has indefinitely suspended elections then you can call it a dictatorship.

Further, as XXXX points out, the opposition could bring down Conservatives anytime they liked. That the opposition will not because they refuse to govern together and will not risk that THE PEOPLE will not give one of them a majority mandate at this time is hardly evidence of dictatorship: a sick democracy maybe but not a dictatorship.

So it is we who either need to push for a coalition government or get busy helping our preferred opposition party get elected with a chance of a majority.

And that sounds to me like our parliamentary democracy same as it ever was.

9 thoughts on “Dictator, Stalinist, Nazi, Communist, Fascist

  1. Hi Travis,

    I feel a bit naked on this blog!

    I do agree with you that potentially I am invoking a bit of a softer meaning to dictator. I do not like the evoking of me as some tea party participant. Potentially a green tea party, but not regular tea.

    However, within the context of my lifetime, I have not witnessed a leader that has been working so desperately behind the scenes to minimize opposition. Being my own critic, potentially it has something to do with the minority status- hard to say.


  2. Hi Paul,

    I think you know me or least my virtual self well enough that I was not trying to censor debate. I like Duncan, I think, have no problem referring to Harpers tyrannical or dictatorial style. By all accounts, both inside and outside the party, he does have a preference for a party of the ONE. And by most accounts you are quite right that this PM has shown more fascination with undermining the spirit of the parliamentary tradition than with upholding it. I only made the comparison to the teabaggers to illustrate the point that I think we owe to ourselves to use more accurate language in public discourse so that we don’t become a nation of Glen Becks. The right has been using outright disinformation and Orwellian double speak to mobilize its populist wings (see for example the Wild Rose party or the Blog SDA). I am not sure this is a workable or desirable strategy for progressives.

    Somewhat off topic but I think relevant in this context is that it should be noted that the parliamentary tradition concentrates a massive amount of power in the executive and particularly the PM. One of the things Harper has done is that he has made good use of the fact that over the last thirty years more and more power has been concentrated in the PMO. This coupled with the complete subordination of the other line departments to Finance has meant that even dissent within the Cabinet is rather muted. This is not something Harper created but rather fortuitously inherited. So the result is today that we have a minority government with a PM and a PMO that are governing as though the have a majority in a parliamentary system that gives the PM rather broad scope in the exercise of constitutionally given powers. But it is important to note that he the PM can only do so because he enjoys majority support in the house. So I agree that Harper has demonstrated some good degree of contempt for parliament but it really is up to parliament to put him in his place.

  3. Well, silly me – I already wrote a long comment, but lost it because I was forced to log in with WP and had forgotten my password.

    Anyway, I’ll try again…

    I have no problem with using dictator and other words in the same family in an extended metaphorical sense.

    Example: My boss is a regular little Hitler.

    Few would think I was referring directly to the Fuehrer’s psychopathic history of murdering millions of ppl. I am merely drawing attention by using metaphorical/figurative language to a certain characteristic of my boss’s management style. Nobody would conclude that my boss had murdered anybody.

    Think, also, of the many times one sees sth like “grammar nazi” used on a forum to refer to a person who corrects another’s use of language. It’s perfectly clear what is being talked about. Nobody would think the poster wore a Nazi uniform and greeted others with a Heil Hitler! salute.

    I can agree that there are times and places where we at least want to create the illusion that we are using language in a literal and precise way (quite complex once you get into it) – like formal/academic discourse. Other than that, though, this is just part of the way that human beings use language.

    I’m writing a post on the metaphorical aspect of political language – but it’s still a draft. Anyway, look closely at the language of politics and you see it’s almost completely structured with concepts borrowed from war. Actually it’s almost impossible to talk about politics without talking as if the political parties are at war. (Just love those “attack” ads!)

    As for Harper, I’d agree that the line between the literal and the metaphor is blurred. But, again, I doubt if anyone is REALLY comparing him to the prototypical dictators who have made their marks on history. It’s merely a figurative, rhetorical way of highlighting his “management” style to call him a “dictator”.

    • Pst make comments over here please http://www.rppe.org. No I get that. But metaphors are not innocuous. I know what Paul meant. But in public discourse one should use their metaphors wisely otherwise we denude the language and the phenomena we are trying to describe.

      • Since we started here, I’ll reply here. I’ll keep your real site in mind for the future.

        I wasn’t saying that metaphor was innocuous – although one NY Times columnist did appear to be saying that. Nor was I suggesting it. I would argue – along with folks like George Lakoff – the very opposite. But probably the main difference here is that I’m a linguist, and you’re a political scientist. I expect we have quite different ways of looking at human language. But I don’t think we disagree that words carry an emotive force – and we need to be aware of how we use language.

        Language can be many things. As an abstract concept, it can only be structured by metaphor. Among other things, language can be a tool or a weapon. The childhood rhyme “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a way of pretending that words aren’t metaphorical weapons. But – especially in American political discourse – they are powerful weapons. Harper has imported US-style politics into Canada. And it certainly shows.

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