Colby Cosh: Randy Hillier’s shameful proposal to tar and pluck Ontario politicians

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It would be fair to ask Hillier which parliamentary colleagues he would most like to torture

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Apparently, it has to be said: “tarring and plucking” is a form of torture. On Saturday, (extremely) independent Ontario MLA Randy Hillier, one of many who completely lost his marbles during the pandemic, tweeted that “when the Ontario legislature reopens, people should bring a pot of boiling tar and a crate of feathers.” Every politician who arrives deserves both a tar and a feather. It’s good, I guess, that he didn’t become partisan about it: he was hoping someone else would bring enough tar and feathers for the whole class.

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But it seems, to say the least, a curious thing to defend in Ontario, a province founded on loyalty to the British Empire. If there is any place on the planet where there should be a living memory of the mob’s use of tar and feathers as a form of violent humiliation, it should be Ontario. It was during the era of American revolutionary turmoil that tar and plumage became canonical punishment for tax collectors, other public officials, and those who supported the Georgian monarchy. The authors of these tests founded the United States; the sick created Upper Canada.

Maybe Hillier has forgotten which side of the border he lives on. The offensive tweet was eliminated, but not before he came to the attention of the police. Nine times out of ten, when there is controversy on Twitter, it has nothing to do with a newspaper or anywhere else, but it’s the tenth time. The tar and feathers aren’t meant to be fatal, but they are meant to be both painful and humiliating.

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There’s a problem that tar and feather images mostly survive in cartoons, just like dynamite; and God knows Randy Hillier sometimes seems to model himself on Yosemite Sam. But if signed calls for violence, with a place and date specified, are to be considered appropriate topics for police attention, this one should being. Do we think it is impossible for someone to come to Parliament with the necessary equipment? Do we think it is impossible for the numbers to be large enough – if only Mr. Hillier had a little more personal charisma – to present a problem of order to the capital of Ontario? (Yes, my use of that name “capital” is a clue!)

Maybe you must have studied the first American republic (not that the American use of tar and feathers is limited to this period) to fully appreciate the horror. I guess everyone thought hot tar burns your skin, but unless you are a mormon you may not have thought that the grime removal process is likely to be as nerve-racking and bloody, or more, than the initial application of tar.

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In the 20th century, taring and plucking often involved the use of molasses or some other sticky substance as a substitute, but Randy’s recipe specified “boiling” tar, no doubt as a sign of seriousness. No one volunteers to be smeared with scorching mud, so the threat of tar and feathers implicitly involves the initial violence of capturing and overpowering someone. Then after beating your target until they submit, you strip them at least half-naked, and that’s part of the goal.

It is such a disgusting and horrible process that it is difficult for people in an orderly and peaceful society to fully imagine it. Given its connotations of obscenity and sexual domination, it should certainly be a shame for a grown man to even come up with a half-joke. It would be fair to ask Hillier which stripped parliamentary colleagues he would most like to torture. Does he have a complete and tidy list, or is he more interested in a mass show resembling a Caligula release?

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Tarring and plumage go hand in hand with lynching: historically, you find them in exactly the same contexts. Hillier really doesn’t hide his desire to be the head of a vengeful mob seeking to intimidate and harass career politicians who don’t call themselves Randy Hillier. To wish him to be reimbursed for his own currency of anarchy would be to play the game according to his rules and thus lose; but we can at least observe the paradox that he is the first to loudly plead public order and the good of the law when his too refreshed offspring fights with a cop armed with a Taser.

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