Sunday, January 20, 2013

It all depends on where you Sit


progress (photo: hydropackulicity.sarahjohns..)
You probably know how the adjectives “left/right” were first applied to the spectrum of political thought. No? You’ve heard but forgotten? OK, here’s a very brief account:

“The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. One deputy, the Baron de Gauville explained, ‘We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.’” (

Sounds simple: rightests value stability and tradition; leftists are eager and open for the risks of change. Viewed from the left, the rightests are unthinking idiots; viewed from the right, leftists are agnostic morons.

               Through his first term in office and proceeding into the second, Barack Obama has become increasingly aware that the divide is not a thin line, but a treacherous chasm. Attempting to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on the shape of the stimulus package for the American economy in 2008-9, he was rebuffed by the Republicans and had to force the package through with a “hard vote” of the then-Democratic-ruled Congress.

               There were those in the French parliament who opposed the seating arrangement becoming permanent; they feared the development of a calcified party system. Their foresight, however, did not prevent what we see today: representatives in parliaments being shoehorned into positions that their constituents don’t necessarily support; the politics of zero-sum, win or lose debate that crucifies the very meaning of democracy: rule by the people.      
              The New Democrats and Liberals in our current parliament are seated to the left of the speaker in blocks, the ruling Conservatives to the right. Although some may detect a believer/agnostic distinction that still fits, it’s obvious that the king vs. revolution divide has evolved over time into something quite different in focus, if not in temperament. It appears in Canada today that the “right wing” is occupied by those who consider king/religion to be economic growth and the agnostic left to be looking for social and environmental “revolution.”

               Simplified, true, but there is still a substantial helping of insight in the observation that a portion of the population tends to favour traditional values and another portion has come to look to progress as the answer. The party system makes it very difficult for us to admit that traditional answers should rule in case one and liberal thinking should govern case two. 
              Once a liberal, always a liberal.


               Makes me wonder what the outcome would be if each politician would select his/her seat in our parliament through a draw among all the seats in the house. Alas, I think the current arrangement may be necessary to prevent representatives from resorting to physical violence; in Canada today, the aisle between left and right is wide, with furniture blocking access of one to the other.

               An arrangement we wouldn’t tolerate in a Kindergarten classroom!

               One big change, though, since Baron de Gauville, is that “the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that [enjoy] free rein” are no longer confined to the left side of the house. 
                Is that progress--destined to become tradition?

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