Dr. Dawg

Inviting comparisons

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When the Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy scandal broke, a number of commentators, myself included, found comparisons to Watergate strangely easy to make—right down to the cast of central characters involved in each scandal. I’m not alone, I think, in playfully trying to find the Canadian parallels for second-tier actors like Rose Mary Woods and G. Gordon Liddy, to achieve an even-closer fit. And yet we know that these two sets of events are widely separated in time and space and location, and bear only superficial similarities.

Or do they?

Whatever exists “out there” is mediated and filtered by our minds, and what passes through that complex array of lenses is assembled in patterns. If we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t survive. We need to “make sense” of things. But that entails constructing order out of vast, chaotic disorder.

What we call “history” is like that. The huge number of recorded events gets winnowed down and narratized. We tell stories about the past, just as we tell stories about current events. We search for the “figure in the carpet,” unaware, perhaps, that any such figure is an invention. If we do this too idiosyncratically, we are diagnosed with apophenia. If we do it intersubjectively, however, our pattern-seeking (and finding) is valorized.

When we make comparisons between Watergate and Wright/Duffy, not to mention Harper and Nixon, we are doing more than trying to score cheap rhetorical points. We are looking for the elusive “lessons of history,” endlessly repeating, both tragedy and farce at once. We look for parallels and similarities, and we construct categories, because we cannot sustain a world in which everything is unique. Language, and therefore society, would fail on such terms.

The comparisons we make are by no means crudely structural—they are moral. We try to understand ourselves and our society by understanding the world, past and present. So we look, in the comparison at hand, for character flaws, for cover-ups and the amplified consequences of their discovery, for the Greek tragedic downfall or, alternatively, for the comic-opera farcical villain getting his. We seek drama—literally—with its beginning, middle and end, or, rather, conclusion. And lo, drama is given unto us, whether as stately tragedy or a crude mediaeval morality play.

The play’s the thing. In medias res, we grow frustrated. We imagine that we recall similar plays, and demand the satisfaction of a dénouement.

And so, Chris Christie. The parallels are nothing short of eerie: the man in charge, where that ever-elusive buck is alleged to stop, caught in a scandal; implausible deniability by that top dog; the underbussing of a loyal right-hand person to save the main character. At the link just provided, it is suggested that there are lessons for Harper to learn from Christie’s unequivocal apology, but the key ingredient is the entirely comparable and utterly shameless “it wuznt me” alibi-ing. Oh, if only both men had been aware of what was going on in their own offices, by senior aides, under their very noses, surely a stop would have been put to such shenanigans.

Pull the other one.

But the Canadian drama admittedly does become more interesting with the noisy introduction of Chris Christie from the wings. Surely an echo of Hamlet is to be found here, a play within a play. A captive audience, trapped by a performance that stubbornly refuses to end, is treated to a meaningful diversion, or so articles like this one are constructed: immediate similarities are noted and sage advice is retroactively dispensed. This is all moral gourmandizing by political theatre critics, of course. Harper has never been one for apologies: indeed, one suspects there is no conscience here to be caught. Nevertheless, it is self-indulgently pleasing to imagine him blenching a little in spite of himself, as his own dismal performance last year is recapitulated before his very eyes.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 10, 2014 2:14 PM.

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