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Ross King, author of "Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven," has also written two novels, three books on Italian history and art, and "The Judgment of Paris," a study of French Impressionism that won the Governor-General’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2007 Charles Taylor Prize. He has also been nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the National Award for Arts Writing. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Ross King, author of "Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven," has also written two novels, three books on Italian history and art, and "The Judgment of Paris," a study of French Impressionism that won the Governor-General’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2007 Charles Taylor Prize. He has also been nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the National Award for Arts Writing. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Ross King

Vituperation? 'Twas ever thus Add to ...

The session was a riotous one. MPs pounded fists on their desks, blew trumpets and crowed like roosters. The next day, under the headline The Disgraceful Scene in Ottawa, a newspaper reported that the Leader of the Opposition was "drunk in the plain ordinary sense of the word."

Those wringing their hands over the coarseness of our political discourse might wish to contemplate these events of April 12, 1878. The myth of our placid progress from colony to nation blinks away the fact that Canadian politics has always been an arena for glorious incivility. The Dominion of Canada was formed in a frenzy of vituperation, sectarianism, armed rebellion and political assassination. It's not difficult to see in the Internet rants of today's caps-lock crazies the shadow of William Lyon Mackenzie's Colonial Advocate, whose profuse italics and bellowing capitals vented white-lipped fury at the ruling elites.

Pleas for civility are nothing new, either. In 1906, after Ernest Cinqmars of La Presse was ticked off by MPs for accusing one of their number of cowardice, Sir Wilfrid Laurier primly declared that the press had the right to criticize politicians, but "they must do it in the language that is fair, and not in the language of mere vituperation."

But vituperation is in democracy's DNA. The vicious personal insults exchanged by Demosthenes and Aeschines reveal the Athenian popular assembly as a place where verbal abuse enjoyed rude health. Cicero once told the Roman Senate that his opponent had worked as a prostitute until he grew too old to satisfy his clients; his opponent said Cicero was committing incest with his daughter.

Calls to clamp down on "incivility" echo 19th-century opponents of democracy who wanted a "rational democracy" where only the "wise" would govern. Mackenzie, unsurprisingly, was denounced in his day as "a most insolent and wretched specimen of the total abandonment of all truth, principle, sense and decorum." For democracy to thrive, all voices must be heard, no matter how unwise or impolite.

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