Spokesblogger for a Nation

By: | Post date: August 26, 2009 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries, Information Technology
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Montreal airport has the same Canadiana as Toronto airport. Airports sell humorous quirky takes on the local culture to inform the curious tourist—The Undutchables was all over Amsterdam airport. Toronto surtitled its Canadiana “Like Maple Syrup for the soul”. Montreal surtitled it “Comme sirop d’érable pour l’âme”. But it was the same English-language Canadiana in both places, with Anglo writers celebrating an experienced, real culture—Anglo-Canada; and making some marginal befuddled comments about the other Canada. They weren’t about some abstract Francanglo-Canada, and weren’t giving equal time to both.

Selling just Anglo-Canadiana in Trudeau airport is short changing Quebec within Quebec (though on federal land, to be sure). But it’s not Douglas Copeland’s and Will Ferguson’s fault they didn’t talk about Franco-Canada: they wisecracked about the culture they lived in, and they lived in one culture. The onus on the airport, if they really wanted to merit translating “Like Maple Syrup for the soul” into French, was to seek out Franco-Quebecois and Acadians to do the same for their culture. In English, because that’s what international airports trade in.

Something like Chiac pour les Dummies, for instance. If only it actually existed. From the guy who brought you Acadieman:

Angry French Guy has mused that he wanted an English-language medium for Quebec to propound its story to the world, because English is what you propound in to the world now; and the Montreal Gazette wasn’t it, because it was the medium of the Anglo-Quebecois minority, not of the (majority-French) whole province. The commenter’s vision in that thread of a committee of 20, with an Inuit and 16 Francos, sounded plenty unworkable to me. But in the new media dispensation, that English-language medium propounding Quebec to the world gets to be Angry French Guy, and Chronicles of a Pure Laine, and Sovereignty en anglais. And the world—or those of the world that care enough—compare notes with Fagstein, and No Dogs Or Anglophones, and the other minority voices. A statist solution won’t get more readers in than Angry French Guy’s own use of anecdote and cartoons.

(Fagstein is miles apart from No Dogs, of course (and I no longer follow the latter), and Fagstein is not even tangentially about the National Question. But one of the few times he waded into that issue, on the occasion of the proposal of a .qc internet suffix, he got a cup of Angry French Guy’s ire. I’m with Fagstein on internet suffixes btw; but then, I never said I was NOT an evil angryphone… I’m assuming it’s all good between them now, at any rate: AFG confers on Fagstein his highest blogroll accolade: “Some Anglos who don’t (always) suck”.)

In the new dispensation, people looking for explication of some exotic locale don’t just look to the academic or the foreign correspondent exegete. They’ll google and go to a blog as well. But to do the exegesis of exotic locale X, the blogger has to be fluent enough in English—not just linguistically but culturally—to be engaging; and patient enough to explain things the locale-Xian tires of justifying.

That doesn’t just apply to Franco-Quebec, but to any number of cultures you may not be familiar with. Including native speakers of English of course. It’s part of why Ta-Nehisi Coates is on my blogroll. That, and he’s an amazing writer who does brave explorations of empathy and working the world out as he goes. All the more rewarding when he hits the limits of where empathy can reach, and explains how.

In the new dispensation then, if you as a clueless Anglo want to understand Quebec, you don’t just go to Ramsay Cook (which I did) or Jane Warren (which I haven’t yet, *very* embarrassingly: I’ll explain why later). You (also, or first, or only) go to Angry French Guy. Whether he intended it or not, he’s a spokesperson for Quebec. From what I gather, he did explicitly intend to get the Franco-Quebecois perspective out there in English, to counter a deluge of Anglo-Canadian attacks in English. But that makes him a spokesperson for Quebec anyway.

Just like happened with the Iceland Weather Report. When a friend of mine went to Iceland for her postdoc a couple of years ago, I googled around to see what she was getting herself into, and happened across this blog. Informative and quirky, written by an Icelander who was, like AFG, linguistically and culturally fluent in English, and a very engaging writer. She did not volunteer to be Spokeswoman for Iceland, and I shouldn’t be sidestepping the Icelandic blogosphere to single her out as the Spokeswoman—any more than Ta-Nehisi should be the only African-American writer I ever read, or I should assume AFG is the only Franco-Quebecois voice of Quebec, and ignore the riches of the French Quebecois blogosphere (which I did briefly tap into at the start).

But I don’t read Icelandic and am not going to. So it was easier for me to treat Iceland Weather Report as my go-to source for all things Icelandic. Lazy, but explicable.

Iceland Weather Report was quirky and fluffy and intriguing in the start of 2008 when I popped over, to find out what on earth was the deal with the New Year’s fireworks, and how does French cuisine work out when you have to ship in all your ingredients. Our intrepid correspondent was even taking to calling her country Niceland and sounding only mildly ironic. And the blog still is quirky and fluffy and intriguing.

But later in 2008, when I’d tuned out of Iceland, a small financial disruption hit the country; and though our correspondent was not an economist, or a pundit, or an Icelandic political blogger, this financial disruption affected her too, as an Icelandic citizen, and she posted about what things looked like from where she stood.

This got her lots of English commenters with pitchforks, since the UK government had decided Iceland was the New Al Qaeda. Because those English commenters, like me, googled the first English-language blog on Iceland they could find, to work out how this country had evaporated their life’s savings, and they were going to let her know it. This also got her some editorial spots in the Guardian—because Guardian journos, just like Englishmen with pitchforks, googled the first English-language blog on Iceland they could find. (That shouldn’t come across as a diss: she is an excellent writer, and she deserved the editorial spots.) And finally, it got her sullen phone calls from the Icelandic Central Bank, peeved that she was bringing their country into disrepute internationally with her humble blog.

A lot of unasked-for power and notoriety, for someone who just happened to be explaining the Ways of Nicelanders to Anglophones. To deem her a spokesblogger is a superficial approach to a diversity of opinion and experience, and an absurd expectation to place on any individual; Ta-Nehisi Coastes angrily dismisses that kind of talk, and I don’t blame him. But that’s the new media dispensation, and that’s what Englishmen with pitchforks are googling for.

For all I know, there may be bloggers in Icelandic just as peeved as the Central Bank, that Iceland Weather Report is getting all this attention and they’re not. That doesn’t mean she should stop doing what she’s doing; on the contrary, the new dispensation means you need more people like her to get your message out. And unlike the 20-person panel mooted at Angry French Guy, you can’t control what they say; you just hope they’re on your side. And that they’re fairly representing to the Anglophone world the range of what the Icelandophone blogosphere was saying (as the Weather Report does).

It occurred to me that this Spokesblogger For A Nation thing was taking hold when, just after I revisited the Iceland Weather Report, a commenter on Angry French Guy linked to a short video on one of the balancing acts in the use of public language in Quebec. The video featured as its talking heads an academic, a government official (I am still bowled over by the Quebecois accent), a couple of Anglo activists—and Mr Angry French Guy himself. Who was not wearing a luchador mask (if that’s what the avatar is).

AFG didn’t ask to be a talking head when he decided he was sick of the Anglo editorialising on the radio, and was going to start writing online. But he’s a good writer and a thoughtful critic, and has a substantial following. He deserves to be a talking head as much as the other people on the doco. Not inerrant, not without his blindspots—but then, I don’t expect godhood of my talking heads, I expect thought and challenge, and he delivers.

The doco was a bit He-Said She-Said, I gotta say, although it did successfully point out the delicate balance which satisfied noone, of creating “French Spoken Here” signs but not mass-distributing them. But at least I found out from the doco what on earth AFG meant by NDG being where he lives.

(And—unsolicited advice here, I know—NDG means living in a fairly Anglo neighbourhood apparently (Deepest Darkest West Montreal), but AFG doesn’t need to bring that up as a defence. If what he’s saying is fair to the Anglophone minority in Quebec, it should stand on its own merits as an argument, even if none of his best friends are Anglo. 🙂


  • opoudjis says:

    > 'Sfunny, I've always expected godhood of you, Nick.

    And I've disappointed you more than once, John. There's a certain ongoing thread in my mailbox right now, from our common past, that is too painful for me to open…

    > So when do we get to hear about Greek Canadians?

    I've sketched the outline of that post this morning; yes, I do take requests. The post will only tangentially be about Greek-Canadians; then again, my posts to date have only tangentially been about Quebecois and Acadians…

  • John Cowan says:

    'Sfunny, I've always expected godhood of you, Nick.

    So when do we get to hear about Greek Canadians? There are almost 250,000 of them at last count (about a third the number of Greek Australians; the two countries have roughly equal populations), and no few of them living in Greece, too.

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