A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for November 2006

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] More on Québec as a nation

The debate over Québec’s nationhood was resolved most spectacularly, as you may or may not know, by the federal government’s sponsoring of a parliamentary motion recognizing Québec as a nation.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan to outmanoeuvre separatists with a motion to recognize the Québécois as a nation has cost the government a cabinet minister and exposed fractious divides within both the Liberals and Conservatives.

The vote last night passed by 266 votes to 16. The only MPs who stood to oppose the motion were newly Independent member Garth Turner and 15 members of the Liberal caucus — including leadership candidates Ken Dryden and Joe Volpe.

Missing from the Conservative bench was Michael Chong, the man who had just resigned as minister of intergovernmental affairs over his inability to recognize the Québécois as a nation, even when framed within a united Canada.

“Recognizing the Québécois as a nation will provide the sovereigntists with an argument they will use to confuse Quebeckers in any future debate on sovereignty. They will argue that if the Québécois are a nation within Canada then they are certainly a nation without Canada,” said Mr. Chong who, despite his role in cabinet, had not been apprised of the government plan before it was put to caucus.

This, Chong’s first argument, struck me as unconvincing. What might the formal recognition of Québec as a nation do? Might it inspire a Québécois nationalist movement? Is it possible that Québec might even hold a vote or two on becoming a fully-independent nation-state? Outside recognition of Québec as a nation matters, but it matters much less than what the relevant population tends to think. If Québécois identify Québec as a nation, telling them that they shouldn’t do so, that by so dissenting they’re contradicting the dominant English Canadian vision of Canada in its entirety as a nation, is a classic sort of error, a confusion of a prescriptive view for a descriptive one. If anything, formal recognition of Québec might well undercut separatism.

Chong’s second argument, that the recognition of Québec as a nation amounts to a state recognition of ethnic nationalism, deserves more consideration. Modern Québec’s relationship with its language minorities can fairly be described as one of tension motivated by concern for the survival of the French language, this concern manifesting itself on the one hand through the creation of a self-contained Anglophone minority within a wider Francophone polity, and on the other through the agglomeration of immigrant groups into self-contained cultural communities themselves oriented towards a Francophone environment through schooling and immigration policies, all in the framework of a nationalism that loudly espouses its transcendence from an earlier French Canadian ethnic nationalism. These policies have transformed Francophone Québec, boosting fluency in the French language among non-Francophones while making Québec multicultural, but even so, debate over these policies have often been strained and contentious, Daniel Salée’s 1994 Cultural Survival Quarterly essay “Identity Politics and Multiculturalism in Quebec”. identifying this policy’s central problem.

The language legislation of the late 1960s and 1970s, premised on the will to protect and promote the language and culture of Québecois, ethnicized the Quebec state and unequivocally stated that Quebec was to be a francophone state and a francophone society. Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, other legislation and policies aimed at defining the conditions of immigration and the criteria of intercultural living in Quebec recognized the existence of so-called cultural communist. Paradoxically, those policies widened the divide between Québecois and other ethnocultural groups. Under the guise of fostering peaceful intercultural and interethnic coexistence, respect for cultural differences, and promotion of diversity, they contributed to formal cultural categorization and to identify formation outside the realm of Québecois culture. The policies implemented over the past decade or so have in effect dichotomized the Quebec population between the majority of Québecois (us) and a minority comprised of all other ethnocultural groups (them). In everyday life, this dichtomization may not be experienced by individuals in a conscious way, but in the public sphere it has created implicit boundaries along ethnic, cultural, and even racial lines. It is a rather pernicious process, for if the public discourse claims that being Québecois applies to everyone residing in Quebec, in reality access to Québecois culture is restricted to those who were born into it. Speaking French does not buy a membership into the imagined community.

These points are true. And yet, I am not sure how, in the 1940s and 1950s, a Québec dominated by its Union Nationale government and its long-time premier Maurice Duplessis, a social and economic conservative and an autonomist was not ethnicized. A Québec with a policy towards immigrants driven by a desire to send all of the province’s minorities over to the Anglophone community so as not to contaminate the pure laine French Canadians can hardly be described as more immigrant-friendly than the current Québec. Tensions over immigration and multiculturalism do exist in Québec, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest that these tensions are qualitatively different from those elsewhere in Canada. Besides, statements like Jacques Parizeau’s which blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for the defeat of separatists in the 1995 referendum aside, the embrace of a civic-nationalist model of nationalism in Québec seems to be general and authentic. It’s worth noting that the parliamentarians who considered this a recognition of ethnic nationalism don’t seem to have been Québec separatists.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 28, 2006 at 11:52 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Litvenenko and the Future

Charlie Stross’ consideration of the recent fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko with an unstable radioactive isotope of the element polonium is quite worth reading, not least because his analysis underlines the fact that the poisoning was carried out by representatives of a technologically-advanced state.

Polonium 210 is interesting stuff. As noted in a variety of places on the web, it is entirely artificial — it doesn’t occur naturally, but has to be created by irradiating bismuth in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — and it has a half life of 138 days, decaying via alpha emission. To do any damage, it needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim, because alpha particles are absorbed very rapidly: but the biological damage they cause is much more severe than gamma radiation, neutrons, or beta radiation, precisely because all their energy gets dumped into bodily tissues promptly, rather than most of it zipping right through the victim and dissipating harmlessly in mid-air.

If, as talking heads have said, only hundreds of grams of polonium-210 are manufactured per annum, the conclusion that someone very powerful wanted Litvinenko to die in a very nasty way, perhaps pour encourager les autres, seems inescapable. Not that it was ever likely that he ate bad sushi, mind. It’s worrying that Daniel Davies’ conclusion that “[a]ll of the main suspects are simply too geopolitically important in one way or another to ever be charged with or punished for anything as simple as murder” is almost certainly correct. I hope that this doesn’t initiate the era of radiological terrorism, but we’ll see, won’t we?

Written by Randy McDonald

November 28, 2006 at 11:05 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Me on Borat

Two articles in the Toronto Star–Ron Chamach’s “Borat’s inner Jew”, which explores Cohen’s porting over of anti-Semitic stereotypes onto Kazakhs for his comedy, and Peter Howell’s “Blame it on Borat”, which anticipates a wave of painful shock comedy drawing on Borat’s precedents–sum up my pretty much sum up my continued negative reaction to the character of Borat. That said, as Robert A. Saunders’ Transitions Online article “Welcome to Boratistan” points out, Cohen’s shtick is definitely bringing a lot of publicity to Kazakhstan.

Ironically, Borat has endowed “Brand Kazakhstan” with an elusive trait that cannot be bought at any price: the “cool” factor. The Kazakh flag now adorns countless Borat T-shirts, buttons, magnets, and other paraphernalia that will undoubtedly be showing up in Americans’ Christmas stockings. And for more adventurous Borat fans, one Kazakh tour operator just introduced two new package tours, “Kazakhstan vs. Boratistan” and “Jagshemash!!! See the Real Kazakhstan.” And right now, someone somewhere around the world is probably downloading Borat’s fictitious anthem “O Kazakhstan” as a ringtone for their mobile phone. This is a windfall for a nation that a year ago languished in obscurity. Based on its recent behavior, Astana has both the will and the capacity to capitalize on this incipient “Cool Kazakhstan” brand. And while he may have offended more than few Kazakhs (and Kazakh-Americans) in the process, Sacha Baron Cohen deserves much of the credit for this strange turnabout.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 28, 2006 at 10:59 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] A worrisome thought

If someone tried to assassinate Pope Benedict XVI at any point during his controversial visit to Istanbul, even if the Pope wasn’t killed, even if the assassin was a lone gunman, things would truly fall apart.

Someone–I forget who–observed that although anarchist terrorists managed to kill only a few hundred people out of all of the hundreds of millions of people who in Europe and North America in the generation before the First World War, two of the people they did kill were the Archduke of Austria-Hungary and his wife. Après nous, la déluge.

At least nothing has happened so far.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 28, 2006 at 9:59 pm

[LINK] Does anyone play Dungeons and Dragons in Armenia?

Does anyone play Dungeons and Dragons in Armenia? Doug Muir is looking.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 25, 2006 at 2:43 pm

[NON BLOG] Slow computer – freeware?

Right now I’m labouring with a slow Internet connection for reasons which apparently have nothing to do with my ISP, not least because my computer is also noticeably slower. Does anyone have suggestions as to specific freeware and kindred programs I might use for a computer five years old that runs Windows XP with Service Pack 2 installed?

Written by Randy McDonald

November 24, 2006 at 10:35 am

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[BRIEF NOTE] Battlestar Galactica

I finally watched three Battlestar Galactica television miniseries, watching it with J. last night. (Yes, I know that I’m terribly behind.) As I entirely expected after a couple of years of my friends’ praise, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is excellent. The sex-driven venality of genius Gaius Baltar meshes nicely, via personal history and something close to madness with Tricia Helfer‘s chilly and genocidal yet somehow sympathetic Number Six, and the President Laura Roslin of Mary McDonnell–who, incidentally, I liked in the quite likeable 1992 film Sneakers–is decidedly formidable. The explanations given for Galactica‘s retrotech are entertaining and at least superficially plausible, especially in the context of the deadly offensive of the sleek God-fearing humanoid Cylons, who control a military machine with an Achilles heel lying in its too-rapid expenditure of ammunition against the Twelve Colonies.

I’d like to watch more. Should I root for the Colonists, or for the Cylons? J. has made his decision, but I can’t help recalling how some of my friends who seemed to incline towards the latter race.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 23, 2006 at 11:59 pm