January 19th, 2006

[LINK] The difficulty of being Canadian

Writing in Maclean's, Canada's main mass-market English-language newsmagazine, Andrew Potter wonders "Ministry of branding" whether

The marketing of nations is hot stuff right now. On its end-of-year list of Big Ideas the New York Times Magazine included "nation branding," a notion that has been heavily promoted by Simon Anholt, a marketing consultant who specializes in advising governments on the branding of their nations, regions and cities. Anholt's proposal is that nowadays every serious country needs a ministry of branding, in charge of protecting and promoting the country's image and identity.

While it's all a bit creepy and Soviet-sounding, the basic idea is nothing new: behind every strong national identity is a successful marketing campaign. Many of the countries we take for granted today as legitimate, long-standing political communities were actually more or less invented not that long ago. Bismarck's Germany, Atatürk's Turkey, or, in a different vein, Mugabe's Zimbabwe are countries shaped in large part through deliberate branding: the creation of unifying myths, new languages and symbols, and rediscovered customs and traditions. It is largely a testament to the success of these branding attempts that we take them to be more historically rooted than they really are.

But the architects of these countries also had heavier tools to work with. For serious national-identity engineering, there are four major instruments:

Potter goes on to identify four tools use by states to build national identities: policies on an official language; rules for immigration and the acquisition of citizenship; the setting of school curricula, especially civics education and the teaching of history; and, peacetime compulsory military service. Apart from the question of whether the state with its coercive powers should use these tools--if, perhaps, the construction of a state recognized as legitimate is more important than allowing more traditional forms of cultural pluralism to remain dominant--Potter notes that none of these strategies work in Canada.

Here, in Canada, every one of the big four nation-building tools is a site of friction and division, rather than unity. We are an officially bilingual country. Education curriculum is a provincial responsibility. We've never even been able to have compulsory service in wartime without tearing ourselves apart, while our current immigration policy has the effect (damaging, if you believe its critics) of undermining, not supporting, the historically dominant culture. Or is that cultures? You can see the problem.

Whither Canada? Potter allows that this decidedly soft-edged approach to nation-building does position Canada as a post-modern society, but wonders how much legitimacy the Canadian state has among its constituents. This has obvious implications for Québec, which doesn't have a military but which does have an official-language policy, a separate educational system, and immigration policies tailored to support the Québec nation-building project. But Canada as a whole? Little, yet.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] What does it mean to be French?

Back in November, I noted that the Wikipedia article on the French people seems to be incorrect in certain ways, going on to trigger a lively controversy. As it happens, the controversy has grown sharply of late, with people who note the continuing existence of ethnic pluralism in metropolitan France arguing with people who point out the constructed nature of the French nation-state, both of these arguing against people with ahistorical arguments like that listed below.

Se c'è qualcosa di veramente vomitevole al mondo è vedere un popolo la cui identità è ben definita(sostanzialmente i Francesi sono una miscela di Celti e Romani) farsi beffe dei propri antenati disonorandone lo stesso sangue. Dire che la Nazione Francese è una mandria informe di bastardi è un insulto verso coloro che sono morti per difenderne il suolo durante i millenni. Dire che la Francia è una mistura di tutte le razze europee e che 22 milioni di francesi discendono da immigrati(specialmente nordafricani) è un affronto verso ogni vero francese. Chi scrive queste menzogne è un ipocrita cui il concetto di nazione è estraneo quanto lo è quello di democrazia per un mussulmano, visto che si vanta tanto di avere 10 MILIONI di maghrebini sul suolo della SUA PATRIA. Comunque la differenza tra un Italiano ed un Francese od un Belga è minima, per cui non mi sembra il caso di ditinguere tanto nettamente popoli e genti che possiedono affinità di sangue, lingua, cultura e religione(in fondo siamo tutti Europei).Cio' che bisogna evitare è il cadere nelle banalità e nelle sconcerie che cosi' spesso avvengono nel nostro continente, alimentate da un sentimento di autodistruzione che permea l'Europa intera e ne mina le basi piu' intime.(Spero che qualcuno capisca cio' che ho scritto, anche se ne dubito...).

The Altavista translation starts off as this: "If something truly vomitevole to the world is it is to see people whose identity is very definita(sostanzialmente the French is one mixture of Celti and Romani) makes pranks of the own ancestors disonorandone the same blood. To say that the French Nation is a shapeless herd of bastards is an insult towards those who is died in order to defend of the ground during the millenia." It goes downhill from there--not the translation, but rather the analystic value of the content.

avva was quite right to point out in the comments that studying French ethnicity isn't a problem. My problem with the article that triggered this debate is that it oversimplified things significantly. Three particular areas come to mind.

1. It doesn't account well for 'indigenous' ethnic minorities within France. If French history had taken a different route, such regional populations as Savoyards, Corsicans, Basques, Bretons, and Alsatians might well have gone on to join different political and language communities, whether separate nation-states or as adjunct provinces of other nation-states. I'm not sure whether speakers of the different langues d'oc ever came to identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic group separate from that of the French. Are these people French, or do they belong to separate ethnic groups?

2. It doesn't account well for immigrant minorities. As Gerard Noiriel made clear in his The French Melting Pot, France is as much of a society of mass immigration as the United States with one French citizen in four as of the mid-1980s having a foreign-born grandparent. Belgians, Italians, Spanish, Poles, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Portuguese, Arabs and Berbers from the Maghreb, Chinese, Indochinese--Republican France has a diverse population. As in practically every country, immigrants lay at the outside of national life at first, but in France perhaps more than most other countries, participation in public life conferred legitimacy and near-indigeneity on immigrants, while intermarriage has always been high. Where do people descended from late 19th century Flemish immigrants to Lille, early 20th century Italian immigrants to Provence, or late 20th century Martiniquais immigrants to Bordeaux fit in?

3. It doesn't account for other Francophone populations. Francophone Swiss identify strongly with their country, accurately pointing to the stable western frontier of Switzerland and its dependencies from the Middle Ages on. Things are different in Belgium, where despite efforts to promote the Walloon language, the one-third of Walloons who would apparently like their region to be integrated with France if the Belgian state fell apart suggest that Walloon ethnic identity isn't particularly strong. Do Québécois, Acadiens, and other peoples descended from New France identify themselves as ethnically French, not simply as descending from French and other settlers but as sharing the same ethnicity as the denizens of the Hexagon? I feel confident in saying no. Since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, North American Québec has gone on to have a historical experience quite separate from that of European France, such that modern Québécois no longer identify themselves as French in anything but language and ancestry and, perhaps, nostalgic sentiment. This conclusion holds all the more strongly for other Francophone populations, whether one is talking about first-language speakers of French in the départements d'outremer or elsewhere in the Maghreb, or second-language speakers of French in the wider francophonie.

What does it mean to be French? Last year, Pearsall Helms argued that though there isn't such an animal as an "ethnic American," there are groups of individuals united by shared cultures which might in other circumstances be considered distinct ethnic groups, some of these groups being closer to ill-articulated American norms than others. I suspect that the same sort of phenomenon exists in France, with (say) Provençals and Lillois being considered just as French as anyone in Ile-de-France, those few Bretons and Corsicans who insist on still using their native languages being regarded as limited regional exceptions, and the different immigrant groups in different relationships. Ethnicity in American and French contexts is a sensitive question dealing directly with the structure of the nation and its political/social manifestations. It's worthwhile to compare Chinese sensitivity over spoken Chinese language, or perhaps more appropriately, languages.

And the article? It's worth noting that the old article has been massively revised, perhaps as a prelude to its assimilation in other articles, perhaps not. One change that seems likely to remain is the deletion of the numbers of French ethnics living in France. That sort of talk, besides encouraging potentially dangerous minds, is just wrong.
  • Current Music
    M.I.A., "Banana Skit"

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Being Finnic in Russia

The year-end issue of The Economist featured, among other articles, "The dying fish swims in water". This rather odd title derived from the efforts linguists to devise a comprehensible sentence in Proto-Uralic, the hypothesized ancestral language of Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarians; that sentence is the only one that Estonian philologist Mall Hellam could devise.\

Lately, Estonians and Finns have begun to involve themselves in supporting the Finnic minorities still living in the Russian Federation. This isn't because of desires to build a Greater Finland, nor is it necessarily related to the territory of Karelia on the Russian-Finnish frontier which, now mostly Russian, is becoming the main Nordic-Russian interface. If anything, as The Economist says, it's related to sympathy for ethnic kin.

The Finns themselves got away for good [from the Russian Empire in 1917]. Their ethnic kinsfolk—the Komi, Mari, Udmurts and the like—managed it only briefly. In 1917-18 there was a big country in the middle of Russia called Idel-Ural (literally, “Volga-Ural”) which united the Finno-Ugric (the “Ugric” because of distant cousinship with Hungary) and Turkic peoples in those areas. When it was crushed by the Bolsheviks in late 1918, its refugee foreign minister, Sadrí Maqsudí Arsal, got a warm welcome first in Finland and then Estonia.

[. . . T]he hard-pressed Finno-Ugric minorities in central Russian regions like Mari-El, Komi and Udmurtia are more concerned. To them, Estonia, with its regained statehood, is a miracle, and Finland an enviable superpower. For the minority Finno-Ugric languages of Russia are dying, spoken mainly by old people in the countryside and a handful of intellectuals. There are few books, newspapers, radio or TV programmes and little mother-tongue education. It is Russian that signifies culture and civilisation; the local lingo, for many, is useless peasant gobbledegook.

That would have been Estonia's fate too, had the Soviet Union not collapsed in 1991. Estonians were well on the way to becoming a minority in their own country thanks to the migration of Russian-speakers from elsewhere in the empire; the use of Russian in education was growing fast.

Miost of these Finnic peoples live in and around the Volga Federal District, in the east of European Russia. The middle stretches of the Volga were the heartland of the abortive Idel-Ural State founded immediately after the October Revolution by the Muslim Turkic Tatars and Bashkirs and the Christian Turkic Chuvash, soon joined by the so-called "Volga Finns," the linguistically Finnic and traditionally pagan Udmurts, Mari, and
Mordvin. These three peoples, together with the Komi peoples living to the north of Tatarstan, are the main but not exclusive focus of Finnish-Estonian attention. Ants Viires' 1993 The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire describes other smaller peoples, like the Votes and the Ingrians, who have lacked the nominal institutional support that the four large Finnic peoples enjoyed. None of these minorities is doing well, though, in the modern Russian Federation.

Worse, the Finno-Ugric minorities are not as robust as their Turkic counterparts, Mr Heinapuu says. “The Finno-Ugric character is different—we are used to running away”. Whereas the Turkic minorities' identity in places such as Tatarstan is bolstered by Islam, the Finno-Ugrics' tradition—and sometimes current practice—is pagan. Mari-El and Udmurtia are probably the only places in Europe where shamanism (nature-worship) is still an authentic, organised religion, with weddings celebrated in sacred groves.

So what to do? Barring a collapse of the Russian state, any idea of Estonian-style independence seems hopeless: in every one of the Finno-Ugric bits of Russia, the Indo-Europeans are a majority. In Mordovia, for example, the Erzyas and their ethnic cousins, the Mokshas, together make up less than a third of the population.

So the main task is survival. Mr Heinapuu and his colleagues try to bolster their kinsfolk's language and culture and highlight Russian chauvinism. The first is difficult. In the two-room world headquarters of the Finno-Ugric movement in Tallinn, Mr Heinapuu proudly shows a shelf of newly published poetry in Mari and other languages. It is a drop in the ocean. “What we really need is the ‘Da Vinci Code’ in Udmurt,” a colleague ruefully complains.

A more promising idea is to bring students from the Finno-Ugric bits of Russia to study in Estonia. That initiative, the Kindred Peoples' Programme, began in 1999. It was meant to create expertise, expose students to western society, and boost morale.

It hasn't worked out like that, though. Half the 100-odd students decided to stay. “These were the first towns they had ever lived in. They adapted too well, and those that went back had problems with Russian life,” says Mr Heinapuu. Now the focus has shifted to graduate education. And the money involved in the student programme is tiny: just 3m Estonian kroons ($230,000). Rich Finland gives only a bit more, Hungary almost nothing.

The problem facing these minorities lies in their pronounced weakness. Both the Finns and Estonians have large numbers, with languages which remain prestigious in their homeland and continue to attract new speakers, living in territories with well-defined frontiers, possessing economies capable of supporting the burdens of translation and the paraphrenalia of late modern mass culture from reality television to popular music. All of the Russian Federation's Finnic minorities lack these prerequisites for cultural vitality. The only thing that these aid programs aimed at supporting these minorities may do, in fact, is to attract immigrants to Finland and Estonia from these Finnic minority groups.

Certainly the Russian government is uninterested in promoting a Finnic renaissance in Russia and risking further the further disintegration of Russia's territory.

It is possible to reverse language decline. Norway, for example, has poured money into supporting the culture and language of its northern Sami peoples. There is no sign of that in Russia, where the authorities approach minority languages with neglect and suspicion. When Tatarstan, the core of the old Idel-Ural, tried to reintroduce the Latin alphabet in which the local Turkic language is most logically written, this was banned by the Kremlin.

The repression in Mari-El criticized by the European Parliament, striking Mari cultural and political activists fairly indiscriminately, might well be preferred by a Russian government that doesn't want to see the example of nearby Tatarstan replicated elsewhere. As I wrote this past September, a Tatarstani nation-state within the Russian Federation is being built by a canny political elite. One, two, three, many Tatarstans is nothing that a Russian government anxious to prevent the dissolution of a Russian state can be expected to want. And so, lacking either a strong basis for national renaissance or powerful patrons, Russia's Finnic minorities are doomed to assimilation.

Soviet nation-building

[REVIEW] The Nomi Song

I have the Toronto public library system and talktooloose's kind invitation to thank for letting me catch Andrew Horn's 2004 documentary The Nomi Song this Sunday afternoon just past. The Nomi Song is a film biography of the German-born New Wave singer Klaus Nomi, who combined opera with pop music and a decidedly futuristic and androgynous image, who was on the verge of achieving broad success before his premature death in 1983 of AIDS, The Nomi Song won multiple awards and broad recognition, these not so much for its conventional presentation of Nomi's biography through period film and interviews with his surviving friends as for the strength of its narrative, of an outsider's delayed success horribly interrupted by AIDS back when it was still an unknown disease.

The film concentrates on the trajectory of his career in New York, starting (according to Horn) when Ann Magnuson invited Klaus Sperber, a recent German immigrant as well-known for his pastries as for his falsetto, to perform at her New Wave Vaudeville Night concert after she saw him give an impromptu performance late one winter night under a New York streetlight on top of a mound of snow. He performed his cover of Saint-Saëns' aria "Samson et Delilah" stunning a raucous crowd into silence. Horn then goes on to describe Nomi's rise to fame, on the basis of his remarkable voice and with the help of his musician colleagues Kristian Hoffman and Man Parrish, climaxing December 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live as one of David Bowie's backup singers. After that, things accelerated for Nomi: successful tours in Europe and the Midwest, a noteworthy performance in Urgh! A Music War, by 1982 success as a single artist in western Europe with his classical songs, most famously Purcell's "Cold Song."

One theme that I noticed was Horn's concentration on Nomi's questions of identity. Nomi speaks in this documentary only through snippets of a single German-language interview, talking about his childhood in Germany and his love for Elvis Presley and Maria Callas, so The Nomi Song is biased. Nomi's friends and colleagues, however, talk at length about his loneliness and isolation, about how the radically self-constructed persona of Klaus Nomi further isolated him, and how in his search for chart success he cut off his ties with New York's New Wave scene for a more polished look. The former Klaus Sperber was successful all the same, and Pamela Rosenthal, the president of his fan club, recounted how the mood at a celebratory party in New York was overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. By 1982, he was already sick from undiagnosed AIDS. The most painful part of the film came when Horn showed a clip of Nomi's performance of "Cold Song" backed by a full orchestra, his vocals cut short as he was short of breath, walking gingerly down the steps of the raised dais as the applause resounded. The interviews that followed that clip talked mainly about how terribly ironic it was that a man who achieved such success through his manipulated image would die of a disease that so horribly assaulted his body, how they were so terrified of his illness that few of them came to see him in his last days, and how cheated and angry they felt at Nomi's premature death at 39.

The Nomi Song struck me as a nice introduction to the New Wave scene in late 1970s/early 1980s New York, and as a better overview of Nomi's career. Certain things were missing, most notably anything from Nomi's best friend and collaborator Joey Arias, but I was quite satisfied. I did end up feeling as if Nomi was a performer who, as Kristian Hoffman wrote in Nomi's obituary, "was always a message of great instinctive hope," and whose own artistic project was hopeful until he died. The success of The Nomi Song suggests that there still may be some life yet. As Nomi sang in "After The Fall," there's always life.

So I told you 'bout the total eclipse now,
but still it caught you unaware,
but I'm telling you, hold on, hold on,
tomorrow will be there.
  • Current Music
    Klaus Nomi, "After the Fall"

[BRIEF NOTE] France yet has uses for its nukes

MSNBC reports.

Jacques Chirac, France's president, on Thursday threatened to use nuclear weapons against any state that backed terrorism against his country or considered using weapons of mass destruction.

In a high-profile speech to military officers updating France's strategic doctrine, Mr Chirac said the end of the Cold war had removed neither the threats to peace nor the justification for a nuclear deterrent.

Citing the dangers of regional instability, rising extremism, and the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, Mr Chirac said France's nuclear deterrence remained the "fundamental guarantee of our security."

Although Mr Chirac conceded that the country's nuclear arsenal could not deter fanatical terrorists, he said it could help prevent states from sponsoring those terrorists.

"The leaders of states who use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using, in one way or another, weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind," he said.

Opposition politicians immediately denounced Mr Chirac's comments on Thursday as "irresponsible."

France, which first acquired an autonomous nuclear deterrent in 1964, spends almost €3bn a year, or just under 10 per cent of its defence budget, to maintain its nuclear deterrent, including approximately 350 warheads. However, some politicians have questioned its relevance and complained about its cost in a post-Cold war world.

I've said before that the French remind me of the Americans, right?
  • Current Music
    Mylène Farmer, "Fuck them all"

[BRIEF NOTE] Kazakhstan and Communism

J. Otto Pohl writes about the cost of Communism in Kazakhstan, concluding that it was heavy indeed.

Those not killed often died from lack of shelter, food and water in the new collective farms. Some 90% of Kazakhstan's livestock perished during the 1930s. Cattle declined from 6,509,000 animals to 965,000 and sheep likewise fell from 18,569,000 to a mere 1,386,000. This destruction of Kazakhstan's herds resulted in mass starvation for the native Kazakhs. Between the 1926 and 1939 Soviet censuses their population decreased by 1,321,000 (36.7%). Much of this decline can be attributed to flight out of Kazakhstan to other parts of the USSR, China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey to avoid starvation. Nevertheless the loss of human life among the Kazakhs due to this man made famine certainly exceeded a million people, over a quarter of their population.

I think of the fact that there is not one, but two Communist parties running candidates in my riding, and I feel ashamed. Why Communism and not Naziism?

[URBAN NOTE] Evolution at work

Passing by this evening, I saw that the impromptu memorial organized in front of the Foot Locker where Jane Creba was shot and killed shopping with her sister on Boxing Day has been cleared. The store is now fully open for business.