June 15th, 2005

[BRIEF NOTE] The Irish Language in the EU

nwhyte alerted me to this news item, reported by the EU Observer among other news agencies.

Irish is to become the 21st official language of the EU following an agreement by European foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday (13 June).

From January 2007, all key legislation in the bloc will be translated into Irish with ways of extending this to other legislation to be looked at in 2011.

Welcoming the decision, Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern told Irish RTE radio that it was a "very long and torturous campaign" to get Ireland's first official language recognised at EU level.

Irish is used far less on a daily basis than English but there are certain Gaeltacht areas in the country where it is spoken by more than 80 percent of people.

Currently, Irish has treaty status meaning that only official EU treaties have the right to be translated into the language; Irish speakers may also write to the EU institutions in their language and have the right of reply in the same language.

Under the new status, Irish may also be spoken at council meetings and will be officially recognised for recruiting to EU institutions which generally require your native language plus one other EU language to be spoken.

According to Mr Ahern, the new status will create around 30 jobs for translators and interpreters and will cost the EU around €3.5 million a year.

[. . .]

Dublin's bid for a change in status started in earnest around the time of its presidency of the EU in the first half of last year.

It made much of the goodwill generated by its success in getting a deal on the EU constitution to push this issue.

"It's a real psychological boost for the Irish language" said Mr Ahern adding that it confirms "the fact that we have multiple identities in the EU".

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber seems to be one of the more visible critics of the Irish language's new status, having criticized the project last year as well as on the 13th as inordinately inexpensive and practically useless.

I disagree with Farrell's argument that post-colonial member-states--like, say, Malta--should use imperial languages in relation to the EU when their own vernacular languages are spoken by relatively few people and fluency in the imperial language(s) is high. The Maltese language, by all accounts, is a language that is still the first language of the vast majority of Maltese, despite the Mediterranean islanders' fluency in English and Italian. One of the only things that can seriously threaten the survival of the Maltese language in our globalized world would be its exclusion from the political realm. For a different situation, look to the Union's new northeastern frontier in the Baltic States. While I think that the Estonian language might have more first- and second-language speakers than the Russian language inside Estonia, the same can't be said for Latvia. Between that country's Russophone near-majority and the Soviet-era education which ensured that a high proportion of ethnic Latvian adults could claim some fluency in Russian, it's quite likely that more people in Latvia speak Russian than Latvian. Should the European Union insist that these two countries interact with Brussels in the Russian language? Not only would the use of Russian for two countries be cost-effective, it would be a decided filip for EU dealings with the Russian Federation.

Irish, though, is a different thing. One of the first term papers I wrote at the underground language was a comparative paper on the sociological evolution of the Irish and Welsh languages. I concluded that had the Welsh language movement had somehow been as successful from the mid-19th century on as it had been from the mid-20th century on, Wales would have been much more of a bilingual society than it is now, with perhaps a majority of Welsh children learning Cymraeg not in school but in their homes. Had the Irish language movement began a century before it did, now, Ireland might have actually become a bilingual society. The Irish language was never as secure in its hearth as the Welsh language, and a variety of factors--the close links of the Irish language to a proscribed Roman Catholicism, Ireland's long history of settlement from Anglophone Britain, most recently the enervating effects of the Irish Famine--accelerated Ireland's Anglicization markedly.

The result? I admit to being influenced by Jean Laponce and his writings on territorialism, especially his 1987 tome Languages and their Territories, perhaps unduly so. Looking at the maps, one can't help but note that Y Fro Gymraeg--the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Wales, in the north and west of that country--forms a rather larger, stabler, and more territorially coherent bloc of territory than Ireland's Irish-speaking Gaeltacht. The Republic of Ireland's admirable education policies seem to have ensured a rather high level of fluency in the Irish language among adults, and the language is clearly being transmitted by some committed parents to their children within and without the Republic's frontiers. It nonetheless remains the case that Ireland simply isn't Irish-speaking in the same way that Estonia is Estonian-speaking or Malta Maltese-speaking. Irish is a minority language in the Republic; English is effectively indigenous.

Speaking as a fan of multilingualism and minority languages, I think that the most viable of Europe's regional languages should become official languages of the European Union. Catalan comes quickly to mind; Galician, Basque, Welsh, and Frisian also come to mind, Luxembourgish if the Grand Duchy wants it, and, if the Republic insists, Irish. (Occitan, alas, seems to be riven by too many divisions between its different dialects and hit too hard by the ongoing shift to French to be placed in the same category.) Speaking as a fan of effective supranational structures, I also think that a shift towards some sort of simplified language situatuion--a stable English-French-German trilingualism, say--for day-to-day affairs makes much better sense. Might there be a way to shift the burden of translation more towards the member-states?
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[BRIEF NOTE] On Criminalizing HIV Transmission

The latest Toronto issue of Xtra has a couple of Shaun Proulx articles describing the circumstances under which HIV transmission is considered a criminal act in Canada. As I wrote in February, I favour the criminalization of HIV in certain circumstances.

In that post, I was responding to the case of Johnson Aziga, a gentleman who despite repeated warnings from public health authorities proceeded to infect several of his (female) sexual partners with HIV through unprotected sex. Proulx is quite right to bring up the case of his friend Trevor, a man harassed by a former sexual partner who was aware of Trevor's HIV seropositivity through the public health bureaucracy. The case of Trevor constitutes a good argument against updating the Criminal Code in such a way as to be too broad. Ruth Carey, quoted in the article, is right to point out that the language of criminal negligence fits these circumstances more readily than the language of sexual assault. Intentionality--the desire to transmit the HIV virus, in any of its variants, to another person without their consent--should determine whether or not a prosecution takes place.

I can imagine that public health's admonitions were humiliating. Even so, these admonitions are important: Quite apart from filling in whatever gaps might have existed his Trevor's knowledge, they created a paper trail. The case of Charles Ssenyonga (1, 2, 3), charged in the early 1990s with intentionally infecting several women and reported to infected a dozen people, proves how important paper trails are. As June Callwood's 1995 Trial Without End documents, Ssenyonga was told numerous times that he was HIV positive and that he needed to practice safer sex in order to avoid infecting his partners. He didn't, of course. At his trial, his lawyers claimed that post-traumatic stress disorder caused him to block out his knowledge of his HIV seropositivity. Except, as it turned out, when he admitted that he was of sound mind and knew exactly what he was doing when he insisted on bareback sex. And, as Callwood points out, except when he raped one woman.

Motives do matter. I'm reminded of those gay and bisexual men in West Berlin, as journalist Laurie Garrett wrote in her The Coming Plague, took advantage of the influx of their East German counterparts after the fall of the Berlin Wall, untrained in the mechanics of safer sex and the risks of HIV as they were. I can readily believe that most of these people were motivated for reasons apart from a desire to transmit HIV: simple pleasure-seeking, say, or psychological relief from a terrifying pandemic. Too, one could argue that their East German counterparts were responsible for not knowing about the principles of safer sex. It still strikes me as a stretch to argue that mens rea was not present on the West Berliners' part. The suggestion that the responsible West Berliners the fault for whatever HIV seroconversion, by denying their sexual partners the information that they needed to protect themselves, leaves me decidedly uncomfortable. I certainly don't think that there's enough substantive difference between a hypothetical person who intentionally injected the contents of a syringe filled with the HIV-1 virus into a second party's bloodstream and West Berliner who intentionally infected an unsuspecting person through sexual intercourse to make the first act criminal and the second non-criminal, or that there should be, at least under Canadian law.

Without exception, the HIV positive people I've known have been quite responsible. A clarification of what acts are and aren't permissible wouldn't apply to these people. Rather, it would apply only to a minority of people who don't care what they don't do. I've no trust in the idea of informal community sanctions largely because such a GLBT community doesn't exist, at least not one capable of enforcing these sanctions. The prospect of facing criminal charges is the only thing that will deter their ilk.

[BRIEF NOTE] Egalitarianism versus Libertarianism

There's an interesting debate at Crooked Timber regarding an argument by Natalie Solent that anti-globalization protesters who don't give up all of their surplus (i.e. non-subsistence) wealth are hypocrites.

A thesis for debate: Asking hard-core libertarians for advice on how to build a better world is something like asking a demon for directions to paradise.

[BRIEF NOTE] Hear about this scandal in Ottawa?

CTV and The Globe and Mail seem to be the only two Canadian news sites covering the story of New Zealand's High Commissioner Graham Kelly. In speaking before a Senate committee on fisheries, Kelly appears to have made some very bad mistakes.

In the course of explaining New Zealand's quota system, Mr. Kelly said that once the Maori arrived here, "they started fighting and eating each other, so there have been Maori wars ever since."

He also said new Asian immigrants stripped beaches of shellfish and "are one of our biggest problems, with their lack of understanding of conservation and the environment."

It wasn't clear why Mr. Kelly made the comments, but in a statement later, he said he apologized "unreservedly" for comments he acknowledged were "inappropriate."

A full transcript of his remarks is available here. New Zealanders are outraged:

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said Mr Kelly's remarks were "extremely offensive" and it was not acceptable to pass them off as a joke.

"It's not as if he was sitting around a kitchen table making a casual comment to a few friends.

"He has clearly shown to us that he doesn't have what it takes to be a diplomat and he should come home."

National MP Pansy Wong described Mr Kelly's comments as racist and said he should step down.

She was astounded that he had put down a large section of the population in front of a foreign Government, and predicted a backlash in Asian communities.

"He can't represent New Zealand if he wishes to voice racist opinions and alienate Asian New Zealanders."

Kelly appears to be coming under additional criticism as a former MP for New Zealand's Labour party, with suggestions that his was an ill-thought political appointment indeed. So far, Labour is continuing to back Kelly.

[URBAN NOTE] The Climate, Again

There was a brief thunderstorm last night around midnight, clearing more humidity out of the air. It's still hot, but it's a fairly dry heat.
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[LINK] Flemish Questions

Filip van Laenan's "Flemish Questions" webpages have been online, in one form or another, since 1997. They helped ignite my layman's interest in Flemish nationalism, which bears certain similarities to Québécois nationalism (an emphasis on language as a marker of national identity, the construction of a non-sovereign nation-state within a larger federal state) though differing radically in many respects (the complications of 20th century European history, the presence of the European Union, Flanders' demographic and economic dominance of Belgium).

Out of curiosity, how prominently do the problems cited--the question of Brussels and disputed border territories, what would be called in Canada transfer payments from rich Flanders to poor Wallonia, a perhaps disproportionately great French economic influence--feature in modern Flemish nationalism? My layman's interest is out of date, and I wonder whether my initial introduction to the subject might have certain biases.

[MUSIC] Pet Shop Boys, "Can You Forgive Her?"

I bought a copy of the Pet Shop Boys' 1993 Very the other day. I was familiar with the hit singles--"Can You Forgive Her?", "I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing," "Go West"--and some of the non-single tracks, but I never listened to the entire album. I like it, and yes, they are a very very gay group indeed.

"Can You Forgive Her?" is the first track on the album, and my favourite alongside "Dreaming of the Queen." The analysis provided by Wayne Studer, at his Pet Shop Boys Commentary site, gets to the song's pith.

Set to one of the Boys' most over-the-top arrangements since "It's a Sin," Tennant tells the poignant, almost comically pathetic story of a young man who refuses to accept his own gayness. He's persistently tormented by his girlfriend, who's aware of his insecurities and uses them against him to get him to behave according to her wishes. Neil insists that it's not autobiographical--thankfully, since he manages to evoke an almost palpable sense of self-loathing in the central character.

As he has done on more than one occasion [. . .], Neil borrowed the song's title, but not its subject matter, from a literary work, in this case a Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope. Chris wrote the music in 6/8 time. As Neil puts it, this time-signature, which is unusual for them, "makes it sound sneaky."

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I first heard the song in the mid-1990s, on MuchMusic. I had the mp3 from mid-2001. And yet, I missed the screamingly obvious gay subject matter completely.

I did a good job of this. I wasn't trying to repress anything at any conscious level, mind. When I did catch on (11:55 PM Atlantic Standard Time, 4 February 2002), it came to me as a complete shock. When I had been asked the previous year if I was gay--someone interested in me, I wonder?--my automatic answer was "no," and I then wondered why someone would think this about me. I compartmentalized superbly. And then it all came crashing down and the connections were made at record speed and I was left to stare stunned at the computer monitor.

Another night with open eyes
Too late to sleep, too soon to rise
You're short of breath, is it a heart attack?
Hot and feverish you face the fact

My mind isn't as transparent to my gaze as I'd like. I find this unsettling.
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