Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When in Hérouxville...


The town fathers of Hérouxville, Québec, have issued a fatw...er, un avis public, to prospective immigrants, following a perfectly gender-balanced survey of residents that garnered 98 female and 98 male respondents. It's obviously a tolerant and progressive little place, where only two of the respondents defined themselves as "racist" (two others weren't sure), and only four wanted to take away women's right to vote. A larger number (10) did not know that the Québécois were une nation, so Stephen Harper has a little work to do in that respect; but only three were opposed to female police officers arresting male suspects.

This consultation having satisfied the requirements of a democratic town council, the Mayor, one Martin Périgny, fired off letters to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay, to the Secretary of State, Helena Guergis, and to the Immigration Minister, Diane Finley, not to mention a gaggle of Quebec Cabinet ministers as well. His purpose was to announce, based upon his sondage, the town norms, here Babelfished into English for your delectation. Immigrants, he said, would be expected to conform to them. No stoning of women. No clitoredectomies. Mixed swimming pools. The whole nine yards, as they say in Baghdad.

Now, one can understand how those who feel that their culture is under siege can become self-conscious about it, and reify it into texts and images. One thinks of the Maori haka performed in front of legions of pakeha, having lost much of its original significance but having gained a different significance, or the Inuit values of survival now codified as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. Those artefacts, changing their meaning with the times, are created to prevent erasure. But the good burghers of Hérouxville are not the bearers of a threatened culture at all. They represent the dominant culture, in fact, and are engaging in a bit of good old-fashioned triumphalism.

One can see abundant evidence of this in the norms that they are now promulgating, and in the way in which those norms are expressed. As noted in the Montreal Gazette, it's rather like those resolutions passed by little Ontario towns a while back declaring that they were officially English-only--Sault Ste. Marie, for example, St. Mary's Falls, that is (with "Ojibwa Kitche Gumeeng Odena" on the town crest, just to make things really interesting).

The norms are explicitly confrontational, for one thing, the town council wagging a collective finger at people unlikely ever to settle there, caricaturing other cultures, demolishing stereotypical strawmen, gratuitously forbidding behaviour unlikely ever to occur. Those who applaud, like Brigitte Pellerin, ("A small town defends its local customs") or the egregiously stupid writer of the hed in the National Post ("Herouxville wants immigrants that fit in with its citizens") are missing something fundamental: this is not a defence of local culture at all, which is not remotely under threat. It's a cartoonish attack on others. And such attacks resonate, unfortunately, with the ranks of les Québécois pure laine--not that other parts of Canada are by any means immune from that sort of nonsense.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a police officer from Montreal is in a bit of trouble over a cheerfully xenophobic song making its way around the Internet, Ça commence à faire là.

"Si tu n'es pas content de ton sort, il existe un endroit qui est l'aéroport" he sings, to a fairly catchy beat. It turns out that he was particularly exercised by a recent incident where Hasidic Jews demanded that a YWCA frost its windows so as not to tempt young Hasids at an Orthodox synagogue across the street who might chance to see spandex-clad women working out on the premises. And an internal police magazine suggested at about the same time, pouring oil on the flames, that female officers step aside to allow their male colleagues to deal with Hasidic men--getting the police union all upset and causing some puzzlement in the Hasidic community, which had never suggested such a thing.

Of course, the Hasids have been established in Montreal for generations, so that telling them to head to the airport has no doubt earned the tuneful flic a few puzzled looks. But other accomodements have also caused offence recently: men being banned from pre-natal classes because Muslim women were present, for example. A Sikh schoolkid carrying a tiny knife sewn into his clothing. A Filipino child eating with a spoon. If that keeps up, Québec will be just a province comme les autres before you know it. It's a slippery slope, câlisse.

Anyway, his song was soon all the rage, and his bosses found out. "Le policier dans l'eau chaude," says the headline.

Not in Hérouxville, mon chum.

UPDATE: (February 2) A parody has appeared. Some knowledge of la parlure required.
(h/t Marc-Alain Mercier).

UPDATE: (February 10) The Globe & Mail has an excellent editorial on the subject today. "This statement [the avis public] only purports to be about shared values. It is an insult and a provocation...."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Barracking Obama

The knives are out for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama--not because of his wishy-washy, centrist politics, but because...well, he's a closet Muslim, sources close to Hillary Clinton are muttering. (h/t Cynapse)

Or maybe he's just an uppity Black man who doesn't know his place. The discussion has certainly become heavily racialized on the Right. As one Canadian conservative commentator puts it, "
Black, stupid or both: that's your only excuse for getting excited about Barack Obama." She continues, referring to Obama's mixed-race background, [T]here is nothing 'compelling' about a black man impregnating a white woman. In more than one Toronto neighbourhood, that's what they call 'Saturday night.'"

So a big hat tip today, to Candace of Waking Up on Planet X. She really says all that needs to be said.

UPDATE: (January 21) Did she or didn't she? There has been considerable debate, here, at Candace's place and elsewhere, as to whether the Hillary Dems were behind the "closet Muslim" smear. The story
referenced above did appear in a right-wing magazine, using unnamed "sources within the Democratic party." Could the Repubs have indeed managed a "two-fer," slinging the mudpies at Obama and putting the blame on Clinton?

But if that were the case, why would Repub strategists do this before the Democratic nomination was secure? In answer to the following question in an ABC/Washington Times poll:
"37. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of (NAME)? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?" Hillary Clinton scored 56% favourable, with 27% "strongly favourable." Obama's numbers were 44% and 21%, trailing Nancy Pelosi and John Edwards. For the opposition, Rudy Giuliani racked up 67% and 49%.

Obama as Democratic presidential nominee
would be a Republican asset. A Black person with a name like his, beloved of northern liberals, would fight a nearly unwinnable battle in the red states. Elementary strategy would dictate, therefore, that the Repubs hold back until Obama wins the nomination, and then swiftboat him to oblivion. Again, therefore: why now?

So I'm agnostic on the question. I was in error, though, in uncritically attributing the smear to the Clinton camp without noting the provenance of the report. Mea culpa.

UPPERDATE: (January 21) Kathy Shaidle has, predictably and no doubt to her delight, provoked tremendous outrage over here on the port side with her brazenly racist comments about Barack Obama and Blacks in general. Some of the responses, however, seem well over the top to me (and no, I shall not link to them). Commentary about her appearance, and whether or not she is getting enough, is OT as far as I am concerned, not to mention sexist. Can't we set our standards a little higher than the other side?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is reality real? Really?

Does the name Shilpa Shetty ring a bell? It should: she's a well-known Bollywood actress presently living in the Celebrity Big Brother house, in the centre of a gathering international storm.

For those not in the know, the Big Brother schtick is to plonk people into a house, make them live together, and, with the assistance of the audience, kick them out one by one. The last remaining tenant wins. Welcome to another iteration of that well-worn oxymoron, "reality TV."

But how much reality is enough? It appears that the delectable Ms. Shetty has encountered not only the usual rudeness to be expected when people are cooped up under real artificial conditions, but some real racism, too. In England! Who'd a thunk it?

As soon as the treatment of Shetty hit the fans, as it were, and she does have her share of them, real trouble erupted in Britain and in India. 18,000 complaints were recorded by the media watchdog Ofcom--the largest number ever received--and 2,000 by Channel 4, which hosts the show. The luckless Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, found himself in India at the time, on an official visit. "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything detracting from this I condemn," he said. Tony Blair and London's mayor Ken Livingstone soon followed with condemnations of their own.

During the same time, in Shetty's homeland, there have been demonstrations, effigy burnings and assorted other expressions of indignation. The Indian Finance Minister announced that India-Britain relations would not be harmed by all this, meaning that they have been, at least at the popular level.
"I am confident, he said, "that the universal condemnation of the racist remarks will result in change in behavior of persons associated with the program." Meanwhile, the Celebrity Big Brother audience has swelled from 3.5 million to a staggering 4.5 million viewers. Really.

Of course, this is where it all gets interesting. As we know, well-formulated diplomatic statements are a performance; and so, for that matter, are political demonstrations. We have not moved abruptly from the "real" to the real; rather, what Jean Baudrillard calls simulation has simply been extended. We remain, as the wider audience, squarely within the realm of the hyperreal. Ironically, the only shred of reality that can be glimpsed in all of this* is the blatant racism--and that's precisely what viewers and governments want expunged.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: Reality? We can't handle reality. Sure, we want it real. But not really real.
* This, too, of course, is problematic, given that race and racism are modes of false representation, performed by racists and the racialized alike. But these power dynamics are anterior to the phenomenon of "reality TV."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Of Khanny Conservatives, blogroll slander, multiculturalism, Nunavut and abortion nuances

2007 is shaping up to be the usual heap of fragments out of which we construct or shore up our respective ideologies. Is there glitter amidst the dross? Issues that could spark debate but, more important, actually make those of us on the "progressive" side reflect? Well, just maybe.

  • The saga of turncoat/convert Wajid Khan continues to unwind, as it were (h/t Zac). But, bluntly speaking, who gives a rat's ass about Wajid Khan? He's just a venal politician, grabbing the brass ring. He merely highlights the glaringly obvious fact that, if you look at the entire length of the political spectrum--in fact, if you do away with that metaphor altogether and talk instead of political possibilities--there's really not all that much difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. No, seriously. Who is David Emerson? A former CEO of Canfor Corp. Who is Belinda Stronach? The pampered daughter of a multi-billionaire. Cross the floor one way, cross it the other way...is there really an ideological difference? Only on the surface, if even there.

    Cynical? Not at all. The world is simply bursting with possibilities. But why, then, do we narrow our political focus to include so little? Are wage and price controls Conservative or Liberal? Free trade? Public-sector bashing? Involvement in Afghanistan? Post-9/11 civil liberties? What position on what issue can be said to be fundamentally Liberal or Conservative? Answer: none. What's in a name? It's really one party with two faces.

    There is a fatal fluidity in their respective positions--even with Harper in the driver's seat, a man who actually has an ideology--that's based upon mere tactical considerations, not upon anything remotely connected to principle or vision. Some MPs change parties and make headlines, but many more, with their parties, change their minds
    180° after being elected, and it's business as usual. Or had they all along intended the opposite of what they campaigned for? (Trudeau's wage and price controls leap immediately to mind.) In any case, no issue is safe with either of these corporate entities. Expediency rules.

  • A prominent member of the small-c conservative community has finally spat out her poison: the Blogging Dippers, she avers, are "Canada's leading on-line anti-semitic community."

    Wow. Is Jack Layton's bedtime reading the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion? Have Dippers joined the ranks of the Holocaust-deniers?

    Well, uh, no. The International Jewish Conspiracy guys tend to be, er, conservative. Read David Duke's website, if you can stomach it, and see where that crowd stands on affirmative action or immigration. Check out the political positions of leading Holocaust-deniers and fascists like the British National Party's Nick Griffin. The vocabulary is a little more direct--these folks don't hide behind codes so much--but it's all rather familiar, isn't it?

    What Kate means by "anti-semitic," of course, is "critical of Israel." In other words, it's the usual cheap, drive-by smear that the new McCarthyites use routinely to try to silence opposition to Israel's policies. But better they should look within their own ranks if it's genuine anti-Semites they're interested in.

  • According to a recent survey, the Globe & Mail tells us, "[v]isible-minority immigrants are slower to integrate into Canadian society than their white, European counterparts, and feel less Canadian, suggesting multiculturalism doesn't work as well for non-whites."

    Wrong. It's working only too well.

    The premise behind multiculturalism is simply wrong. It's an essentialist premise, based upon the notion that cultures can be caught, packaged and kept pure. Then the people placed lovingly within those boxes are urged to get along with the people in other boxes, and to "integrate" into the bargain. The whole thing is so flawed, so artificial, so contrived, so contradictory, that it is no wonder that the results are precisely what the survey reveals.

    How do progressives who harbour these misgivings find the discursive space to argue them without sounding like conservatives? A good start is to unpack the idea of "integration." One hopes, of course, that people in a community, even an "imagined community," will to some significant degree be integrated--that's rather what "community" means. But integrated doesn't mean homogenized. And it doesn't mean, "you have to learn to be like us." Rather, it means that the unique and shifting perspectives, world-views and narratives of all of those in the community are permitted to combine naturally to make something new. There is no timeless, unchangeable "us," after all.

    We won't get there, though, so long as we maintain our well-intentioned but paternalistic policies of cultural salvage and preservation. We build walls that way, and we're beginning to see the consequences.

  • And speaking of culture, Nunavut has been in the news recently, with a multiple shooting in Cambridge Bay, a community that I have recently visited and hope to visit again. "It's just too late in Nunavut," screams the Globe & Mail headline. "Few take advantage," the sub-hed says, "of available help for chronic alcohol and drug abuse."

    Nothing could sum up the underlying problem of Nunavut better than that. The territory is a magnificent example of the contradictory Canadian policy towards aboriginal populations--supposed autonomy within a context of cheerless, hopeless dependency and continued colonization. Kids go to English-only classes starting from Grade Three. The Nunavut Public Service Act is cobbled together from other jurisdictions, and an Inuktitut/Innuinaqtun translation doesn't even appear to exist. Lip service is paid to traditional cultural values, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, but governance is built upon the same model as in the South: hierarchy, power imbalances, fragmentation of the workforce, confrontation. The communities are simply put on welfare, and the symptoms of the resulting disease are then treated--not always very well. Nunavut is presently suffering from all of the consequences of our Canadian version of indirect rule.

    I wish that we could take a look at Kalaallit Nunaat, better known as Greenland, as a case-study of what is possible. Greenland's fifty-six thousand people got home rule back in 1979. More than 80% of the population is Greenlandic Inuit. Greenlandic and Danish are official languages, and the schools operate in Greenlandic. Greenlanders have a university in the capital city, Nuuk. Per capita income is the equivalent of nearly $21K US, and the unemployment rate of 10% is half that of Nunavut.

    Greenland is not economically self-sufficient--half of government revenues consist of grants from the Danish government--but compared to Nunavut (90%), its economy is robust, if heavily dependent, as one might expect, on the fishery and the public sector. Tourism is limited by the climate and season, and current mining possibilities will require some years to materialize. (Source: CIA World Factbook.)

    Suicide among young people is a major problem in both Greenland and Nunavut, although Greenland's statistics are marginally better, as they are for life expectancy. Given the Internet and television, it seems to me that young people in remote areas are presented with excruciating extremes: their probable future toiling in primary industries, or unemployed, and the lavish lifestyle showcased behind glass screens, forever out of their reach. I have often wondered why remote Northern areas do not participate in the "knowledge economy," where one's immediate geography is not a limiting factor. Investment in informatics infrastructure would, at least on the surface, offer tremendous potential and hope.

    While Greenland is not Utopia, then, it still offers a startling contrast to Nunavut. I suspect that its relative success is due to a self-government untrammeled by paternalism and chronic dependency, and to a people whose own values, language and traditions have pride of place in their own land.

  • Chris Selley had an interesting column recently on the abortion issue. Designer children? Deliberate selection for disabilities? The comments at his blogsite raise some other questions. For those who coldly reject "nuance" as a threat to women's civil liberties, the article and commentary are worth a read.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Monday, January 01, 2007

OK, you read it here first...

Don't cheer so loudly, dear right-wing bloggers. Saddam is not dead.

You may remember that the man had a slew of doubles. This was one of them, the one who drew the short straw. Why is the real Saddam being kept alive, you might wonder. Better you should ask, "Did they ever have the real Saddam in custody?"

No, they did not. Don't believe a word of it. He's holed up in comfort somewhere, with his Scotch and his torture videos. There is a geopolitical game plan here, of stunning boldness, hatched in the glory days of Donald Rumsfeld and fledged by his successor. But to understand it, you first need to know about the invisible imam. To quote the linked article,

[The] Twelfth Imam, Muhammed al-Mahdi...died, or vanished, at age five in the ninth century. The Twelfth, or Invisible, Imam is prophesied to return in times of extreme ruin to lead the faithful to paradise.

Now, there's a problem. It would appear that, at least in some quarters, the ever-elusive Osama bin Laden is seen as precisely that imam. Not good news for the US State Department. Such rallying-points keep Islamofascism on the boil.

But Christianity offers a way out, or at least the history of Christianity. What do you do if someone you don't like becomes Pope? Why, if you have organizing skills and a geographic base, create--an anti-Pope. Or, more properly, create a Pope of your own, and call the other fellow the anti-Pope.

As everybody knows, Saddam was useful to the US over quite a period of time--in fact you could almost call him their made guy. Suddenly, though, he was supposedly in their bad books. Two wars twelve years apart it took to "topple" him, and in between, sanctions made him fabulously rich. Now the US is sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and Saddam has been turned into the Hanged Man, that archetypal symbol of divinity and sacrifice. As Tarot-fanciers know, the Hanged Man is not really dead. This image, residing deep in the unconscious, is being deliberately used by the US to resonate in the hearts and minds of Muslims.

We may never know what Saddam was offered to play his upcoming role of Mahdi. Perhaps he'll get Iraq back, but as the Twelfth Imam he would be far more powerful than a mere dictator in any case. And, to paraphrase a former US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, he may be a Twelfth Imam, but he's our Twelfth Imam.

When will he appear in his new guise? My bet is this year, 2007, just in time to extricate the US from the deepening Iraqi quagmire and cut Osama off at the knees at the same time, not to mention establish George W. Bush's legacy. Mind you, I'm not sure how the President is going to explain this to his fellow-citizens, but he won't have to bust a gut over it. Those people will believe anything.