Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quebeckers and the Quebecois

Just who are Quebeckers? Quebecois? Apparently the question contributed to the 15 Liberal dissenting votes on the recent Canadian Parliamentary vote on the nationhood of Quebec. It also goes to just who the people of Quebec are and who among them, if anyone, constitutes a nation.

The debate centres on whether or not residents of Quebec who are not francophone, born-in, culturally ‘pure’ Quebecois are included in the putative nation of Quebec. The question, really, is about ethnicity versus geography—it’s a variation on the distinction between ethnic/national identity and civic/political identity. That is, who you are on the paperwork versus who you are culturally.

The trouble in the federal Liberal Party seems to have been over the idea that the recent parliamentary motion on the subject might implicitly recognize only ‘pure laine’ Quebecois as a nation. Apparently this is supposed to be a bad thing.

I think it’s a pretty good idea. For one thing, it’s more accurate to call ‘ethnic’ Quebeckers a nation—immigrant and Anglophone Quebeckers are less historically attached to the cultural history of francophone culture. Further, this would mean recognising a nation without fixed ties to territory—one could be nationally Quebecois and live outside Quebec, or not be Quebecois and be a Quebec resident. Finally, as a pragmatic advantage for federalist politics, it would mean a smaller opposed group with a weaker territorial claim in any future independence negotiations.

Separatists probably know this, and have largely abandoned ethnic language. That said, ethnic nationalism remains at the heart of the separatist movement, and the federal government should be honest about that. Recognising that a relatively small portion of Quebec residents constitute a nation in the ethnic sense, without constituting the population of any future state, is probably a much better idea than identifying the nation with the province of Quebec, setting up the newly recognized nation as a political entity with territory attached.

In short, this would recognize a nation of Quebec within Canada, while also recognising it for what it is—an ethnically driven cultural movement at odds with the multicultural values of contemporary Canada. It is right to allow officially that a cultural distinction is at work in Quebec, but we should all be honest with ourselves about just what it is and what form it takes.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

site changes

Well, nothing much, really. I've replaced the increasingly awful BlogAd link exchange button on the lower part of the sidebar with an Amnesty International ad that shows rotating excerpts from blogs and websites that have been censored, blocked, shut down, or otherwise abused by ill-intentioned governments. A pretty good thing, I figure.
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Friday, November 24, 2006

Russian Defector Dies

Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector to Britain recently hospitalised after being poisoned, died yesterday in London. Shortly beforehand, he dictated a short but pretty hair-raising statement. has carried it in full; its well worth reading.
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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Nation of Quebec

These are interesting times indeed for Canadian federalism. That the Quebecois should suddenly (if insubstantially) be recognised as a nation by the federal government is strange, at least within the context of Canadian history on the subject. That such a change should come down under a conservative government is truly bizarre.

The move is insubstantial because it takes the form only of a motion by the Prime Minister before the House of Commons. This is important, of course, and it sets precedent, but the fundamental status of Quebec and its people would more properly be recognised in the Constitution. Thus us that a far cry from the failed ‘distinct society’ ideas in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.

It also recognises the Quebecois people rather than the political entity of Quebec. The Quebecois people may well constitute a nation (they almost certainly do by at least one of the dictionary definitions of the word) but they are not alone among the people of Quebec, many of whom are immigrant, Anglophone, native, and so on. The Quebecois could not constitute themselves as a nation-state—as the Bloc and the PQ would have it—without the political entity as well, with its territory, political machinery, etc, attached.

This is, thus, one more turn in a longstanding debate, rather than anything like a solution. Even as an idea, it’s not terribly radical—we’ve been calling Native Canadian groups First Nations for years. Nonetheless, its political significance is probably very real.

What’s really difficult to gage is how this will play politically for the Tories. PM Harper gets credit for a statesmanlike political move, and gets credit also for undercutting the Bloc, but this largely lets the Liberals out of an internal debate about Quebec’s nationhood, at a time when it stood to significantly damage their credibility. There could still be a divide in the Liberal Party when the motion comes to a vote, but it could cause as much dissent in the Conservative Party, which is the home both of Brian Mulroney’s distinct society and of hard-line Anglo Canadian nationalists, such as any exist. It’s hard to imagine the Alberta Conservative parliamentary contingent being too thrilled about this. On the other hand, three-party unity in the House, as has apparently happened on this, is rare indeed.

Of course, if Harper looses the next election to Michael Ignatieff, Bob Ray, or someone else, this might well be remembered as his largest symbolic contribution to Canadian politics, certainly on the issue of federalism at least. It may be more or less symbolic, but it stands nonetheless to be remembered and to have entirely unpredictable on federal party politics.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Poisoned in London!

Just in time for the new James Bond flick, the Russian FSB (ex-KGB) has begun behaving like the cold war never ended.

There's nothing surprising about Russian politics being a bit Byzentine, or about their foreign policy being a it hard-minded, but this is the stuff of bad paperbacks. An asassination on foreign soil (a former imperial capital at the heart of the EU, no less) is pretty brazen stuff. If this is the price of letting an ex-spook govern a former superpower, we'd all best hold on tight.
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Monday, November 20, 2006


It was Henry Kissinger, as much as anyone else, who orchestrated the policy of Vietnamization that lead to American withdrawal from a failed war a few decades ago. His recent assessment of the current war in Iraq as unwinnable shows him in pretty good form as a policy analyst, but he still has frighteningly little to offer in the way of solutions.

There’s no withdrawal or anything like a ‘decent interval’ here. In fact, his position sounds oddly like Bush’s staying the course. The problem, as he assesses it, is that a speedy withdrawal (at the behest of an emboldened Democratic Congress) would likely produce a rise in violence and perhaps a spread of violence to neighbouring countries.

What to do then? Hold meetings. Kissinger proposes a conference of regional and world leaders to work out some sort of solution. On the one hand, he’s probably right that this is the only way forward. It’s hard to say what’s scarier about this.

For one thing, the vagueness of it is startling for an analyst so incisive. It’s generally nicer to have solutions rather than possible ways to find them. Conferences are nice, but putting American, Syrian and Iranian diplomats in a room together can only go so well, and throwing in a few Swiss and Norwegians is only likely to help so much.

Furthermore, Kissinger cuts against his own usual instincts. The situation is desperate enough to have turned the greatest foreign policy realist in recent American political history into an ad-hoc liberal internationalist. This is nice, but it’s pretty scary too.

The admission here, really, is that there are only bad options, only differing ways for things to get worse. It’s bad that the Iraqi people have to pay for Western mistakes, but worse that it could so easily do so much damage to the region, and to international relations generally if the Americans can’t find some new place for themselves in the global order.

Henry Kissinger doesn't seem to have much more than the rest of us to offer on this. One can like him or hate him, but it’s damned alarming to see someone that bright at a genuine loss.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Congo Again

...And I've spoken too soon. The results are to be disputed. And have a look at the electoral map here (scroll down a bit). Kinda makes you worry, that big line down the middle. Clearly not over at all.
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A Turkic Commonwealth

The Turkic peoples of Central and West Asia have a long and complex history, both as founders and subjects of empire. For almost a century, all that has seemed to be a thing of the past. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the absorption of most other Turkic peoples into the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, they have either been organized as discrete nation states (Turkey) or subjected to rule from afar (almost everyone else). Recently, most of these have emerged as a number of post-communist nation-states.

Set against this is the old idea of a pan-Turkic union, a state or association of states that would bring the members of these related ethnicities together, as a single voice on the global stage. Ankara, after a few years of silence on this, seems ready to have another go at it: they’re about to host a summit of Turkic heads of state.

The project makes lots of sense for the Turks themselves, at least in appearance. A Turkic Commonwealth makes a plausible Plan B should EU membership fall through, without all the troublesome human rights and economic reforms attached. True it would be a smaller pond, but Ankara would be by far the biggest fish—a Turkic international organisation would give it a significant sphere of influence, extending from the Mediterranean to the Chinese border, and controlling significant energy resources in and around the Caspian.

The other states, mostly one form or another of failed democracy or outright dictatorship, would get a club to join and a place they could belong without addressing their own quite significant political and developmental issues, which are far greater than those of relatively wealthy and progressive Turkey.

The big losers would be other former Soviet states, such as Georgia, which hosts an important international pipeline that is Turkic on either end. Armenia, is fenced in on two of four borders by hostile Turkic states. Tajikistan, the only non-Turkic Central Asian state and poorest former Soviet Republic, which would be more isolated than ever. A big coalition to the north and east might also scare Arab Middle Eastern states or Iran.

It would also scare the bejesus out of China, which has a large and potentially separatist Turkic region in its northwest, bordering Former Soviet Central Asia. Moscow probably wouldn’t like it much, in that it still likes to think of these countries as the ‘near abroad’—countries over which it has an imagined right of influence. It might annoy the Americans and the Europeans two, by disrupting energy security and slowing human rights reform.

All this, along with the possible cost of aiding the dilapidated states of Central Asia might well be enough to scar Ankara off, but it looks set to press ahead with at least an attempt at this. It will be interesting indeed to watch.

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Congo results

As of last night the numbers are in in DRC, and apparently Kinshasa is (provisionally) pretty calm. The long awaited election, one of the most complex in the history of international election supervision, has come off pretty well.

This is good news. It's also probably good news--well, not bad news--that Joseph Kabila has won. He's probably corrupt, possibly inept, and certainly not the great leader his campaign made him out to be. But then, neither would anyone else have been, and likely no one else had the broad base of support to maintain anything like peace and security over any large portion of the country.

This also means that relatively little tangible political change will have resulted from the bloodiest conflict anywhere since WWII. That we can call that good says something breathtaking about the condition of sub-Saharan Africa. Say what we will about the limits of peace and reconstruction, none of us should be comfortable with that.
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Friday, November 10, 2006


I saw the Borat flick with some friends the other night. I laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair. I thought the muscles in my face were going to seize permanently. It was a beautiful thing. I was also a little concerned. On the one hand it’s genuinely, disarmingly funny. On the other, it’s worryingly hard to pin down the difference between this and comedy performed in blackface.

It isn’t the flagrant, if tongue in cheek, misogyny and anti-Semitism that bothers me. Most of us know better than that. The toilet humour wears a little thin after a while, but its remarkably resilient (A weird guy holding a bag of his own shit in his host’s dining room is simply too jaw dropping not to laugh at). What gets me is that too much of the humour is predicated on our own cultural ignorance.

Central Asia is, of course, a little on the sexist side and perhaps a little anti-Semitic too. At street level it’s dirt poor, a bit backward, and it feels like the edge of the universe. On the other hand, they don’t drink from toilets, give trophies to prostitutes, or do laundry in public parks. Predicating 90 minutes of humour on cultural awkwardness most of us just don’t know much better than to buy into is, well, just a little but ugly.

On the other hand, I did laugh my ass off. Some of it just plain works—jokes about naked fat guys are universal, and some of the cultural commentary about the Bible Belt is plain brilliant. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guy Fawkes

Last weekend the English celebrated their annual effigy-burning festival, Guy Fawkes Day. This is, indisputably, an odd event, the only holiday in the world (to my knowledge) named after a terrorist. It’s also the only holiday marking an execution that I can think of, aside of Good Friday.

The story, for those not in the know, involves a former soldier from York, who attempted to blow up the English parliament and kill the king on 5 November, 1606. The plot was stopped; Fawkes was tortured, and was eventually executed.

Being a surrogate Londoner, I wandered down to the local celebration in Hackney the other night. The friend who accompanied me (another Canadian) warned me that the London version of this had become a bit watered down. It was indeed—there were no effigies in Victoria Park Sunday evening, burning or otherwise. The only open flames were gas torches set as backdrop for a pithy stage show, centring on a mythical political tax rebellion against an evil emperor, apparently based on a Bengali folk tale. Lots of pretty fireworks, but no connection especially British history.

Also no connection to the holiday’s bizarre overtones. Celebrating the torture and death of an attempted terrorist has, of course, rather queasy associations these days. But then, celebrating with a South Asian parable while British troops are in occupation of Afghanistan is pretty strange too. In the story told that night no one at all dies, and the theme is easy liberation—freedom without consequences. The historical event celebrated is shadowed by sectarian overtones (Fawkes was Catholic, James I was Protestant), and by questions about the limits of political activism.

The British are a fairly liberal and a famously pragmatic lot, and they have tended to either gracefully gloss over or simply openly embrace the occasion’s uneasiness. There is, however, no time like the present to find cause for debate in these events. The British polity survived the event and thrived afterward—democracy bloomed properly only long after the instability of the Reformation. One would hope that there were lessons in this not only for the British public—British electorate—but also for the outside world, not least their transatlantic ally who seem to have some degree of trouble dealing with the idea of political dissent and with political violence. Thus is hardly the time for folk tales with empty happy endings.

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Midterm Exams

American midterm elections probably shouldn’t be days of reckoning. They only shift some of the power base, only give voice to a portion of the nation’s political will. They can punish an American president, but they do surprisingly little to empower the opposition. They grant a platform to speak but offer the opposition remarkably little capacity to do anything more than slow things down. This is, more or less, what Americans voted for the other night.

Democrats having won control of the House and likely the Senate, and President Bush will be able to do very little without their consent. But then, the Democrats will be able to do very little without his. The risk for the Democratic Party is simple enough—they’ll be judged almost as much as Bush for whatever happens in the next two years, and with things likely to go badly (imagine a two year argument about troop withdrawals from Iraq) a crippled presidency can only be held accountable for so much.

Much of this falls to the incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nobody seems entirely sure what she’ll do once in the job, leaving aside her known liberalism. This is a good thing, but she also seems unlikely to set as measured or as subtle a tone as outgoing Republican speaker Dennis Hastert. She might turn out to be a well-intentioned and politically desirable loose cannon.

Bush’s presidency as we’ve known it—the moral highhandedness, the strident bellicosity—is more or less over. Sometime Wednesday morning, a long, ugly, and inevitably confused presidential campaign started. Neither party has a presumptive candidate. Neither clearly has a policy platform that will capture the American electorate or lead the country back into the political mainstream of the developed Western World. The Democrats will try to capitalize on very real failures of leadership, but they’re left mostly to criticism the Whitehouse for a war in which they themselves largely acquiesced.

The good news, at least if you agree with me on these things, is that some Democrat or other will probably still win in 2008, and this will represent some measure of improvement. It isn’t clear what they’ll do though about America’s damaged international reputation, much less the unfolding (and increasingly unmitigated) disaster in Iraq, but the proverbial bleeding might at least stop. The bad news is that the American electorate now has two full years to learn just how uninspired the Democrats are about these things. The political campaign will be bloody, messy and, frankly, a lot of fun to watch. In the meantime, foreign and domestic policy will stagnate at the worst of times.

Looks like a long wait—and there might not be much progress at the end of it.

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