A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for September 2006

[META] Blogroll Addition

eveglassDaily Breadcrumbs is now on my blogroll. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Bible, and Sunday school at Trinity United Church wasn’t exactly an ideal environment in which to learn about the doctrines of Christianity.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2006 at 2:49 pm

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[LINK] A blogospheric roundup

  • Bert Archer meditates on the First World War’s Battle of Flers-Courcelette, memorialized in Scarborough by a street name.
  • Centauri Dreams surveys the moderately alarming trend among some SETI enthusiasts to go beyond listening for signals from outer space and to actually transmit signals to target stars, hoping to make contact. I’m quite willing to concede that my automatic connection of this to Greg Bear’s novel The Forge of God is a kneejerk reaction. Even so, shouldn’t people trying to make first contact with extraterrestrial civilizations consult the rest of us first?
  • Joel at Far Outliers quotes extensively from an analysis by Bernard Lewis of the reasons for the structural problems of the Middle East. As I write in the comments, I’m dubious of Lewis’ contention that the alignment of French colonial authorities in Syria and Lebanon with Vichy France was the critical moment–one, maybe, but the leanings towards proto-fascism had already been freely imported.
  • feorag reports at the Pagan Prattle about a witness at a Scottish trial on satanic abuse who announced that she was pressured into making false statements by the authorities. Witch-hunts tend to render the truth so badly, don’t they?
  • Jonathan Edelstein notes that the decision of the Solomon Islands’ province of Guadalcanal to adopt a foreign policy towards China that contradicts the foreign policy of the Solomon Islands. This surely does not augur good things for the coherence of the Solomon Islands state.
  • Richard’s too-infrequently updated Castrovalva has a collection of thought-provoking essays, the most recent examining Foucault as a neo-humanist, the modern applicability of the Romantic concept of nature, and alienation in modern literature.
  • zarq has a wonderful collection of links on eschatological Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin and his theories.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 29, 2006 at 11:38 pm

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[LINK] Some items on people and cultures in motion

  • Over at Sweden.se, Anders Porter writes about Dutch immigration to Sweden (“Going Dutch in Sweden”). For many Dutch, it seems that the relatively inexpensive and spacious lands of rural Sweden are quite attractive, even if the red tape related to business startups is a pain. This new immigration into Sweden is but one component of the larger trend towards emigration from the Netherlands, as ethnic tensions, a stagnant economy, and difficult living conditions have propelled–Morocco, Belgium, Germany, Turkey, now Scandianvia.
  • Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Elisabeth Rosenthal examines the question of whether replacement migration really can help stave off population aging. It’s working in Spain so far, but then, Spain is unusually lucky in having a huge hinterland of hundreds of millions of culturally close colinguals to draw upon. The situation elsewhere is different.
  • Oslo’s Aftenposten carries the latest on the legal disputes between Norwegian journalist Aasne Seierstad and Afghan bookseller Shah Mohammad Rais over the former’s book The Bookseller of Kabul. Rais thought that Seierstad, a guest in his home, would write a book about his business and Afghan culture; Seierstad, offended by what she saw as the mistreatment of women in his household, wrote instead a book examining the inequities and domestic dramas around her. His claims that she has, alternatively, lied about what she saw and endangered his family with her revelations might not get heard in a Norwegian court, seeing as how his tourist visa has been rejected.
  • Stephen Oppenheimer’s Prospect Magazine article “Myths of British ancestry” takes a contrarian look at the question of who peopled the British Isles. It turns out that the Basques are a surprisingly strong candidate.
  • William G. Gabler’s photoessay “The Death of the Dream”, published in Lost Magazine, is a stirring archeological and historical exploration of the American family farm. The layout and disrepair of these farmhouses in their rural fastnesses is something hauntingly familiar to me from Prince Edward Island.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 25, 2006 at 11:33 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Democracy abroad

Thailand.

A bloodless coup in Thailand has upended the country’s fragile democracy, to the delight of many middle-class activists who had campaigned for months for the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister. But the manner of his removal by Army officers loyal to the Thai monarch exposes the shallow roots of the democratic institutions that grew in the shadow of past military regimes.

Mr. Thaksin, whose party has won three elections since 2001, had repeatedly accused his opponents of plotting a coup. Wednesday, Thailand’s king endorsed the military coup leaders, who have pledged to restore civilian rule within weeks.

The readiness of self-styled democrats to condone the military action reflects the conservative grounding of Thailand’s urban political culture, which is shaped more by royalist hierarchy than well-defined checks and balances on a strong executive.

Hungary.

As they strolled through central Budapest yesterday morning, many Hungarians saw things that brought them back to the bad days of 1956: public squares littered with burned-out and overturned automobiles, bullet casings, shreds of clothing, piles of rubble and splotches of blood where thousands of rioters had battled with state police.

But this was not 1956, when Moscow’s tanks rolled into the city and turned the Eastern European country into an effective colony of the Soviet empire for the next 35 years. This week’s riots were just as surprising, and almost as violent, as the clashes 40 years before. This time, though, history was repeating itself as part tragedy, part farce.

Last night, 10,000 more demonstrators gathered in downtown Budapest in a second night of protests, the largest and most violent that have been seen in the largely peaceful country in half a century. Some of the protesters set up tents and brought large supplies of food.

This time, the anger was not a response to Moscow’s lies, but to a surprising and rare moment of apparent political honesty.

On Sunday, Hungarian state radio broadcast an allegedly secret tape recording of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany declaring that his government had been built on a public fraud: “We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening.”

Mexico.

Standing among 150,000 people shouting ¡Viva Mexico! Geronimo Rodriguez Hernández, a 50-year-old brick maker, waved a large flag emblazoned with Mexico’s national colors and the phrase Convención Nacional Democrática, or the National Democratic Convention. Even afternoon thunderstorms didn’t deter Hernández from attending the Sept. 16 rally organized by the former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Gathered in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s historic town square, the crowd cheered and chanted for the city’s former mayor who was defeated in the July 2 election by 234,000 votes. While many said they felt emboldened by the nearly two-month-long protest, which halted traffic in the surrounding blocks, others blamed the encampment for driving away business and tourism, resulting in lost wages, particularly for waiters, taxi drivers and hotel staff. Until early September, when Obrador lost a battle with the nation’s highest electoral court over the results, his supporters had been camping out in the square for seven weeks.

[. . .]

Eventually a sea of raised hands voted to form a parallel government by swearing in Obrador as president on Nov. 20. He plans to rewrite the Constitution in order to guarantee the people health care, food and work. The crowd also renounced Calderón and his cabinet’s authority and condoned future acts of civil resistance.

Hernández, the brick maker, said it was too early to tell if the continued protest and refusal to recognize Calderón might result in military or political upheaval. He planned to stay involved regardless of calls to end the conflict. “We believe in Obrador and in the new system of government that he wants to create,” he said. “That is our dream.”

Back at the Head Heeb’s thread on the apparently successful coup in Thailand, Alexander commented that there seems to be “different rules for governments after a successful revolution (violent or not). The level of trust in “authority” is much lower than in a more stable system, and everyone is much more aware of how weak any government’s grip on power is when the people decide that they won’t put up with it.” We might do good to look at the example of 19th century France to see where this sort of style of government might take in this class of liberal but revolution-prone countries.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 20, 2006 at 6:40 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] On the coup in Thailand

I was quite surprised by today’s military coup in Thailand.

Thailand’s army chief vowed on Wednesday to clean up the country’s political landscape and return “power to the people” as soon as possible after a bloodless coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Commander-in-chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who had repeatedly dismissed a coup as a way out of a prolonged political stalemate, took the reins of power late on Tuesday as head of an interim Political Reform Council run by the military.

“I would like to assure that the Council has no intention of running the country by itself and will return power, under the constitutional monarchy, to the people as soon as possible,” he said in a national television address on Wednesday morning.

I shouldn’t have been. Today’s coup, outlined here at Wikipedia, is the product of a long history of political instability in Thailand centered around the person of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who can briefly be described as a Southeast Asia version of Italy’s departed Berlusconi. Thaksin, fortunately, is somewhat more competent in economic matters, presiding over a revival of Thai economic growth. Unfortunately, his populist brand of politics, besides relying heavily on patronage, has contributed to the marked deterioration of conditions in Thailand’s far south, where the local Malay Muslim population is being drawn into a terrorist conflict against the Thai state. Jonathan Edelstein’s analysis of the dynamics of today’s coup is adroit.

At the time the Bangkok protest movement began in February, Thailand was a functioning democracy, and there were mechanisms available by which unpopular or corrupt prime ministers could be replaced. Whatever may be said about Thaksin’s authoritarian tendencies, he was in office because he won a free election, and there was no sign that he would refuse to respect the results of the next one. Thaksin’s opponents could, in the normal course of events, have sought to remove him by defeating him at a general election, sponsoring an intra-party challenge to his leadership or submitting their corruption allegations to a public prosecutor.

The trouble, from the opposition’s standpoint, was twofold. Replacing Thaksin by democratic means would take too long, and more to the point, his continuing popularity in the countryside meant that such methods were unlikely to succeed. So instead of going the constitutional route, the opposition changed the rules. The street protests, rather than being a means of effectuating democracy, were a method of replacing democratic legitimacy with a form of revolutionary legitimacy based on control of the capital city. This is the true weakness of Orange-style mass politics: that it depends on mobilization of the capital rather than any valid measurement of public will throughout the country, and that it can be abused by factions that represent a minority position nationwide but use their control of the capital as leverage.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2006 at 11:59 pm

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] School shootings and language politics in Canada

In a front page article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, journalist Jan Wong made a remarkable argument about the motives for Kimveer Gill’s murderous attack on Montréal’s Dawson College.

What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it’s affected immigrants, too. To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.

In 1989, Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women and wounded 13 others at the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique. He was a francophone, but in the eyes of pure laine Quebeckers, he was not one of them, and would never be. He was only half French-Canadian. He was also half Algerian, a Muslim, and his name was Gamil Gharbi. Seven years earlier, after the Canadian Armed Forces rejected his application under that name, he legally changed his name to Marc Lepine.

Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor, was an immigrant from Russia. In 1992, he shot four colleagues and wounded one other at Concordia University’s faculty of engineering after learning he would not be granted tenure.

This week’s killer, Kimveer Gill, was, like Marc Lepine, Canadian-born and 25. On his blog, he described himself as of ‘Indian’ origin. (In their press conference, however, the police repeatedly referred to Mr. Gill as of ‘Canadian’ origin.)

It isn’t known when Mr. Gill’s family arrived in Canada. But he attended English elementary and high schools in Montreal. That means he wasn’t a first-generation Canadian. Under the restrictions of Bill 101, the province’s infamous language law, that means at least one of his parents must have been educated in English elementary or high schools in Canada.To be sure, Mr. Lepine hated women, Mr. Fabrikant hated his engineering colleagues and Mr. Gill hated everyone. But all of them had been marginalized, in a society that valued pure laine.

Perhaps Marc Lépine never was seen as a Québécois pure laine. Quite possibly he was the victim of discrimination. Insofar as his motives for the committing the infamous Montreal Massacre of 1989 are concerned, Lépine profoundly troubled childhood seems to be far more relevant.

Born Gamil Gharbi to an Algerian father and French-Canadian mother, the boy had a rough childhood. His mother had divorced his father over the issue of abuse, which had extended to the children. Beaten by his father, Rachid Liass Gharbi, for such minor problems as singing too loudly or failing to greet him in the morning, Lépine had learned to fear him.

“He was a brutal man,” Monique Lépine told the court, “who did not seem to have any control over his emotions… It was always a physical gesture, a violent gesture, and always right in the face.” Monique’s sister confirmed these details to the judge, although Gharbi protested that they were not true. Nevertheless, the judge awarded custody to Monique. Still, young Gamil was not free of the man until he was 7 years old, and the exposure for that long to Gharbi’s temper and beliefs had a strong influence. The boy so hated him that when he was 13, he changed his name to Marc Lépine.

Yet try as he might to distance himself, Lépine nevertheless adopted his father’s views about women as servile and second-class (despite the fact that his mother was getting university degrees). They were not men’s equals. Psychologically speaking, he was not built for a world in which women were getting educated, acquiring opportunities and becoming strong and independent. Rather than appreciate his mother’s attempt to improve things for her children and herself, he saw only betrayal. In his mind, women had a specific place in society and they should stay there.

Valery Fabrikant, an instructor at Montréal’s Concordia University at the times of his own killings, seems to have been an obsessive crank with serious personal boundary issues–as the Fabrikant FAQ at can.general points out, he was active on USENET for a decade–who seems to have suffered the misfortune of having tenured professors put their names on his work. One day, he went nuts and killed three people.

As for Kimveer Gill, as his blog made clear before its recent deletion, he was just another depressed young man living in the suburbs with his family convinced that the world owed him.

To sum up: Lépine attacked women because he hated women, Fabrikant attacked his colleagues because he hated his colleagues, Gill attacked Dawson College because he seems to have disliked its successful students, his near-peers. Lépine, a Francophone, killed mainly Francophones that December day at the Polytechnique; Fabrikant and Gill, Anglophones, went on their sprees in Anglophone institutions of higher education. All attacked people they simultaneously envied and resented.

Only the most enthusiastic of Wong’s readers could possibly apply the Scots verdict of not proven to the theory that Québec’s Allophones are so stressed by Québec’s language politics that the more unstable among their number go about committing mass murder. Why invoke the fact of Lépine’s Algerian father and Wong’s unproven theorizing about discrimination when it’s quite clear that was Lépine’s father’s exceptionally bad parenting that created a femicidal monster? How can Wong’s theory accomodate the fact that Fabrikant’s workplace shooting and Gill’s school shooting–both, I need only mention, events which conform to the sadly emergent North American standard–were directed against Anglophones in Anglophone community institutions?

Maybe I’m missing something critical. Maybe, just maybe, Jan Wong is right. I’d be hugely surprised if this was the case, though. These three men murdered have been marginalized, yes, but I just can’t see how Québec’s language laws and Francophone prejudices contributed to their marginalization. Three spree killers in the space of two decades out of Québec population is high, but sometimes that’s how the dice land.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 18, 2006 at 11:59 pm

[LINK] On population futures

Over at Claus Vistesen’s Alpha Sources, a commenter responds to speculation about Russian, and global, population futures by wondering if the situation is too advanced for any recovery to be possible.

A useful parallel here can be found in the many, predominantly male, private clubs in London. Their history goes back a couple of centuries.

There is a well-documented record of problems arising in these clubs if the average age of the members is allowed to rise too far. Beyond a certain point the existing membership is no longer prepared to encourage the relatively active, noisy presence of younger people, so few younger people join. In almost every case the result has been a long decline which gets even more difficult to reverse with each passing year, leadng eventually to closure or often merger with other equally moribund (even if financially well-endowed) clubs.

One might describe this phenomenon as the ‘whirlpool of advancing gerontocracy’ (the clubs are generally self-governing, electoral bodies). The parallel is illuminating but I’m afraid offers little encouraging to say about the prospects of countries with the sort of demographic problems[.]

Written by Randy McDonald

September 10, 2006 at 11:59 pm

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