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Will sado-politics win another term for Harper?

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The Harper government's latest foray into sado-politics, that is, a politics that uses the vicarious joy of punishment to attract voters, may be unconstitutional—but in an election year it's the thought that counts.

Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain -- sadism -- is normally suppressed in our daily Western lives, and appropriately channelled: think of extreme fighting and splatter flicks. Back in the day it was public witch-burnings, or hanging, drawing and quartering -- or lynching, in which ordinary people could take part without any personal risk. It's a commonplace, but bears repeating, that the ostensible purpose of these punishments was deterrence and the maintenance of church and state-defined order, whereas they actually functioned as popular entertainment.

Sadism finds its way into right-wing politics as a nourishing undercurrent. It cannot be publicly exercised by the state in its pure, unrestrained form without destabilizing social effects. Excuses and rationales must therefore be found; the impulse has to be cloaked and regulated. The condemned committed crimes, after all, so they deserved their grisly fates, the old priests and kings would argue. In Canada, much more recently, our national security is at stake, warranting the torture and imprisonment of children. Or we're being taken advantage of, so Harper cuts medical services to refugee claimants: let them suffer and die, maybe they’ll quit coming here. (Or just lock and load.) Mike Harris, when he was Premier of Ontario, drastically cut welfare payments, leading to extreme privation and even death. At the same time, he instituted "snitch lines" so the poor could be endlessly harassed by their neighbours. His supporters cheered.

The sadistic impulse also lurks beneath uncalled-for increases in the severity of judicial punishment, a salient aspect of Conservative rule. Minimum sentences, even for non-violent offences. Longer sentences. Petty cruelties once in prison, like denying inmates pizza on their own dime after charitable work, or denying non-Christian chaplains access to federal prisons. While crime rates are plummeting, the government uses "streets are not safe" cant to impose more and more penalties, jail more and more people, and build new prisons for "unreported criminals." And now it's American-style life without parole.

All of these things are new public spectacles, witnessed through the media rather than directly. And they stimulate the collective amygdala of the conservative base.

We aren't talking here about legal retribution, or even its wild first cousin, vengeance. Sado-politics are about joy. People have to feel comfortable about it, however -- for goodness sake, they aren't monsters, right? So their dark impulses must, as noted, be appropriately cloaked, even from themselves. But if there is any doubt in readers' minds what is at the root of this brand of politics, let them read a few comment threads on Toronto SUN articles, or listen to the eager voices on right-wing call-in shows. The gloating, the glee, the hand-rubbing relish with which every new punishment is greeted by those audiences! Can we deny the pleasure in their voices?

Such individuals would faithfully attend public executions and latter-day witch-burnings, and, if interviewed, struggle to look serious and thoughtful as they point out the necessity of upholding law and order. But they wouldn’t be attending those spectacles to ruminate on abstract questions. They would go, rather, for the pleasurable intensity of what they would be witnessing.

No doubt the necessity of mooring this sort of thing in a juridical context, not to mention one consistent with current social mores, has a braking effect, even within the minds and consciences of those who have the power to determine punishment. In Canada we also have the Charter of Rights, which has proven so far to be a bulwark against a too fast-and-loose infliction of pain by statute. We won't likely see capital punishment again, for example, or the legal imposition of torture. But we are observing, nevertheless, one more instance of the Harper government’s gratification of a popular thirst by inventing new crimes and new punishments in an election year.

The very next insectile segment of Conservative sado-politics will be fresh new anti-terrorism legislation, to be announced at the end of this week. A safe prediction: there will be enough punishment in there to please the base -- for a while, at least. Stay tuned.

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